There’s a saying. “A broken clock is right twice a day.” It’s a great way to point out how someone who is pretty good at being dead wrong can occasionally be right about something.
Senator Ted Cruz just had a broken clock moment.
Just a short bit ago the FCC approved new net neutrality rules. Under this decision the FCC has essentially labeled the Internet to be a public utility just like phone service, citing current laws referring to “telecommunication” regulation. Just like phone companies aren’t allowed to reduce your phone service quality or deprioritize it so that higher paying customers can crowd out access, “fast lane” Internet won’t be allowed to take priority and crowd out less privileged websites and users.
Back in November Senator Cruz tweeted a dire statement about how dangerous Net Neutrality is:
“Net Neutrality” is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.
Obamacare for the Internet. This was a very deliberate and calculated statement by the Senator during the debate leading up to today’s decision. It was meant to tell everyone that Net Neutrality is a government intrusion into what should be left to the free market economy.
Well, the FCC has just handed Ted a broken clock moment. He is, in fact, correct that this is the government taking over the management and regulation of the Internet. It will now be subject to FCC regulation regarding access and infrastructure.
Senator Cruz’s statement was intended to rally people against Net Neutraility and generate a fear that FCC involvement would result in infrastructure failings and slow speeds for all. By comparing it to Obamacare he intended it to look like a case of government overreach and bureaucratic obstructionism that would destroy both American freedom and people’s access to a free market Internet.
I’m glad he made that connection. By doing so Senator Cruz sets the stage to be prescient about the long term implications and effects of government control over the Internet. It gives us the chance to actually look at the results of similar actions in the past and use them to “predict” the future. While he focused on Obamacare, the precedents go back much further than the introduction of the Affordable Care Act to events in the early 20th century.
Well get to those other precedents in a moment. First I want to go ahead and follow Senator Cruz’s lead by looking at the results of Obamacare. Prior to the American Health Care act’s passage, It’s insurance provisions did not come into play until last year. During that year over 11 million Americans became insured. If Net Neutrality means Obamacare for the Internet, then Senator Cruz is predicting that in a year’s time affordable Internet access will become available to 20% of the people not currently able to have that access.
Thanks, Ted. That’s reassuring.
Obamacare is not, however, the best comparison to be making. The Affordable Care Act was about reducing the costs of healthcare to something more affordable for most Americans. Net Neutrality, on the other hand, is very much about equal access to information and communication. For this there is a far better precedent to draw on, and it is, in fact, exactly where the FCC came into this discussion in the first place – Utilities.
Title II of the Communications Act came into play in 1934. It was specifically created “to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service”. The FCC was created explicitly for the purpose of enforcing this act. It has sense been amended to cover other real-time telecommunications means, such as TV and, now, Internet service.
Note the stated purpose here. This act was not created simply to prevent people from saying naughty things on a radio show. It was created to make available radio and phone to the American people as much as possible. It was very much understood at the time that radio and phone communication, whether one directional or as an interchange between multiple people created better informed citizens, and as a result strengthened the individual as a person and the nation as a whole. As such it needed to be as widely disseminated as possible.
The Communications Act and the FCC was part and parcel of the New Deal established by Roosevelt to simultaneously deal with the Great Depression and to bring the benefits of 20th century technology to all Americans. So even as organizations such as the Tennessee Valley Authority were creating power transmission lines in those parts of America too poor for businesses to bother investing in, phone lines went up right alongside of them.
Once the infrastructure had already been created and rural people connected to the power grid and phone network, the private agents of commerce and industry finally became interested in rural citizens as customers. They were willing to maintain the networks and support their ability to provide the services. Eighty years later electricity and phone in even very remote rural regions is taken completely for granted. But it took government regulation and control of the phone networks to get the infrastructure out there in the first place.
Flash forward to today and the FCC ruling. This ruling very clearly puts Internet access into the same status as telephone communication. This means that, like the telephone, the Internet now falls under that mandate “to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service”. This is something we desperately need.
What do I mean?
Well, just like with health insurance and the telephone, there were plenty of services available to provide Internet service to those with the finances and clout to attract the private industries prior to the decision. However, just like with health insurance and telephone service many people were being completely left behind, having to make do with whatever scraps they could manage to find on the outskirts. This means that the Internet access that opponents to Net Neutrality (like Senator Cruz) think everyone has basic access to actually looks like this:
Notice that in this map of Broadband speeds that there is plenty of red indicating high speeds in the urban, built up areas of the nation. Note also that those areas populated by our rural population such as our agricultural professionals or the oil and gas producers in the Dakotas and such are pretty much all white, meaning they are stuck with dialup access at best. “Equal access to basic Internet” basically means roughly 55 million Americans do not have broadband access.
That number sounds shockingly similar to pre-Obamacare health insurance gaps, doesn’t it? Only in this case, instead of affordable health care, the current “Net Neutrality” stance taken by those opposed to the FCC decision are blocking one out of every six Americans from access to online educational opportunities, telemedicine, or even plain and simple economic development.
Even before the FCC decision the agency has already been clearly concerned with this worry. The 2015 Broadband Progress Report blatantly slaps down the thought that letting Internet Service Providers build and control the infrastructure will grant equal access (or any access at all) to reasonably useful Internet technology. Fifteen years after broadband started, 92% of urban Americans have access, but 53% or rural Americans do not.
So if Net Neutrality is the Obamacare of the Internet, thank god. Government control reduced uninsured American statistics by 20%. If the FCC can achieve similar numbers for Americans without access to reasonable Internet technology, I am all for that.
So, Ted, thank you for your very, very encouraging warning. I sincerely hope you are correct.