The Fresno Bee
by Orson Aguilar

One hundred years ago, a communications revolution began. Recent leaps in technology have created a new communications revolution, but we must act to keep its benefits within reach of all.

On Jan. 25, 1915, Alexander Graham Bell in New York City called his former assistant Thomas Watson in San Francisco, making it America’s first-ever transcontinental phone call. Transcontinental phone service was a breakthrough, but it was quickly imperiled by a Bell System monopoly that led to excessive prices and thwarted innovation.

Recognizing that telephone service was necessary for success and even survival, Congress acted to ensure that all Americans had access to basic phone service. Rules were set up to open up competition. Where telephone service was unavailable, universal service programs were created that encouraged expansion of the phone network.

Today, broadband is as essential as basic telephone service was a century ago. If you doubt this, just look at how many employers accept job applications only online. And we’re fighting the same battle for equal access all over again.

But providers view broadband as a luxury, preferring to sell high-priced service to those who can afford expensive bundles. And they have used their deep pockets and massive lobbying power to consolidate the market, forestall new companies from competing, and prevent communities from building their own broadband networks.

The companies want to offer better service to those who can pay more. That’s great for big corporations and wealthy individuals, but not so great for everyone else, who would be relegated to the back of the digital bus.

The Federal Communications Commission will shortly be issuing rules aimed at addressing this, through what is commonly referred to as “net neutrality.” That rather wonky term simply means protection for everyone’s right to access any content or applications they choose, without their Internet provider picking favorites or restricting access. Simply put, it’s equal access to the Internet. Period.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has recently made comments suggesting that he’s amenable to this idea, but in the past he’s also suggested he might allow Internet providers to charge extra to transmit some types of content. It’s hard to tell from his statements exactly where he will come down.

What we need from the FCC (or, if the FCC won’t act, from Congress) is simple: The Internet must be treated as what’s known legally as a “common carrier,” guaranteeing open access for all, with no fast lanes or special privileges for the wealthy and well connected. Nothing short of that will protect the new communications revolution 100 years after Alexander Graham Bell made his landmark phone call.

 

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