Liza Barry-Kessler: Internet Neutrality Principles Should Apply to Wireless Providers

[This post is authored by SOIS PhD student Liza Barry-Kessler; access other student posts here.]

The FCC recently announced that it will vote on “preserving the open Internet” at its December 21, 2010 meeting. This will be a high profile vote – more than 36,000 comments have been filed with the FCC on this particular rulemaking procedure.

Internet neutrality, the debate over whether or not the companies owning the infrastructure through which we get access to Internet may slow or accelerate certain Internet traffic, is complicated by the architectural diversity of the Internet itself. When most people got online through dialing in over a telephone line, traditional telephone regulations ensured that each packet of Internet data – think of a packet of data as the equivalent of a letter in a sentence – were treated equally. Everyone’s communications packets were technologically equal.

Now Americans obtain access to the Internet through a whole range of new technologies: cable companies, DSL providers, cell phones, and other mobile devices. These providers are not regulated the way traditional telephone companies were; they are free to treat each packet of Internet data however they choose.

More and more Americans are using their cell phones to access the Internet: 38% in May 2010, up from 25% in April 2009, according to the Pew Internet and American Life project. These numbers are more dramatic for young adults: 9 out of 10 Americans between 18-29 own a cell phone, and 65% of them access the Internet through their phone. Pew also found that African Americans and English speaking Latinos are significantly more likely to access the Internet through their phones than are white Americans.

The FCC’s forthcoming vote to preserve the open Internet, if it includes wireless Internet access providers, will go a long way towards ensuring equal access to online information for people of color and young people.

But this is not only about young people and people of color using cell phones to access the Internet. The world of wireless devices that use Internet access to provide valuable services is growing. For example, the Internet has long held the promise of transforming rural health care by providing advanced services over long distances. Unfortunately, the cost of providing broadband services to areas with low population density has caused that promise to stall. Deployment of a wireless device and transmitters is a far smaller capital investment than laying fiber to a “last mile” destination that may be many miles from an existing broadband access provider.

This will also affect educational access. While the E-Rate program has been tremendously successful in providing affordable Internet access to rural and low-income schools and libraries, such institutions must adapt to the wireless access world to continue meeting the information needs of their communities.

Furthermore, children continue to be homeschooled in increasing numbers – in 2007 (the most recent year for which data is available), more than 1.5 million children were homeschooled. This number increased from 850,000 in 1999. These families depend on Internet access that is both affordable and trustworthy, either at home or for free in public libraries, to engage in research and obtain curriculum support materials.

Robust wireless access means that these students – and all students – can study and learn anywhere. The answers to botany questions can be looked up instantly and outdoors; historical or cultural questions that arise on field trips can be answered on the spot.

Of course development of wireless networks is an expensive investment in infrastructure. Companies need to be able to recoup their investments and be responsible stewards of their shareholders’ investments. But these interests must be balanced with the evolving role of wireless as a primary means for gaining access to Internet-based content. Where conflicts arise, regulators must protect access to knowledge.

Wireless Internet access is growing, not slowing. If the FCC does not require wireless providers to carry all lawful traffic equally, this technology will fail to live up to its potential. Instead of being a robust public good, helping to close the digital divide and improve distance medicine and education, it will be primarily relegated to the realm of entertainment for those who can afford it. Our opportunity to maximize the public benefit of the wireless spectrum will be lost.

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