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States Fight ALEC-Inspired Deregulation of Internet Services

 

The Internet has become the electricity of the modern era. Everyone relies on it; for our economy to keep growing, more and more people need to use it. And for the most part, the companies that own and deploy the essential infrastructure that gives Americans access to the Internet do a great job. Reliability is high, innovation is strong, and many consumers covet each new tool and device that comes along.

At the same time, for a service that provides such a critical component of our economy and indeed our daily lives, we are in danger of racing to a future that divides our country into haves and have-nots, and does not adequately provide for the small businesses, labor force and individuals who require the Internet for everything from banking to health care, and from education to their very livelihoods.  

As has been reported in a few key places, including by Progressive States Network, a spate of destructive broadband bills has been sweeping across the country, spurred on by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Unbelievably, just as broadband Internet becomes an essential tool for millions of Americans, these states, following the pattern of the model ALEC bill, are making moves toward depriving states of any power to ensure reliable, competitive, and affordable service that serves all state residents — from small businesses to those on the other side of the digital divide. The companies behind these bills want the ability to choose to serve only the locations and the individuals that yield the greatest profits. It is simply not smart governance to leave state authorities without the power to ensure everyone can use such a critical asset.

Many of these bills take the approach that any service which uses "internet protocol" (called "IP") should be deregulated. Such a proposal sounds like it might only impact a handful of the most cutting edge services. The problem? Pretty much every communications service you can imagine uses IP — including emergency services, video services, and even telephone service.

The approach in these bills has unfortunately been mimicked widely. Last year Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin all eliminated regulation of IP services. In 2012, bills in Alabama, New Hampshire, and Utah have been passed. Even data collection on these services has been foresworn. As a result of last year's legislation in North Carolina, for example, reporting obligations are eliminated after 2014. Without data, states will not know about emerging problems or be able to evaluate whether needs are being met. In contrast, utility services as commonplace today as electricity receive oversight from most states, including obligations such as requiring electric companies to offer service to those who can pay, and basic service quality obligations.

Fortunately, as advocates and others have identified the dangers in these bills, the likelihood of their passage has slowed down. Kentucky, New York, and New Jersey have fought off similar measures. Bills in Connecticut and Colorado have stalled out, while a bill in California continues to be hotly debated — having just passed the Senate and now heading to the Assembly. Hopefully next session states will take a look at a more reasonable approach pursued in Maine in 2011.

These sweeping actions that deprive states of oversight also raise serious questions about states' ability to ensure that all of their residents will benefit from broadband. At the same time that broadband is emerging as the key method by which states deliver benefits to their residents, we face dramatically lower broadband usage among low-income communities and communities of color. This question of broadband adoption is the most important one facing the whole country, and state governments in particular, over the next few years. Yet many states have eliminated the service from state jurisdiction before the problem has started to be addressed.

States have historically used service quality monitoring, obligations to offer service, and subsidies for low income residents as tools to ensure that all Americans have access to essential services and technologies -- whether that has been electricity, basic telephone service, or other essentials. As broadband is becoming a critical service, now is not the time for states to throw out their toolkit in a rush to join an ultra-right wing deregulatory fervor.

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This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.