Report: Consumer Protection

A Public Interest Internet Agenda

Released by: PennPIRG Education Fund and Media and Democracy Coalition

Connecting our entire nation via high-speed broadband will bring remarkable economic, social, cultural, personal, and other benefits. Robust economic development, job creation, improved health care at lower costs, enhanced educational opportunities, increased homeland security and public safety, reduced energy consumption and pollution, a reinvigorated democracy and more open government – these are just a few of the benefits that will flow from our nation linking its entire population to the Internet at broadband speed. Recognizing these benefits, many of America’s global competitors have already embarked on aggressive national broadband strategies to deploy fast, high-quality broadband. But the quality of U.S. broadband access is lagging.  According to the most recent statistics (December 2008) available from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States ranks just 15th among developed nations in broadband penetration.

To provide our nation with the tremendous opportunities that broadband access to the Internet can deliver, and to catch up to our global competitors on broadband deployment, policymakers must launch a well-planned, concerted national effort – such as that which deployed telephone service, electricity, and interstate highways across the nation – to deploy robust and affordable broadband to every corner of our nation. Equally important, policymakers must at the same time promote “digital inclusion” initiatives to ensure that all Americans have access to the digital skills and tools necessary to take advantage of the Internet’s enormous potential benefits.

By adopting a bold and imaginative strategy to network our nation, policymakers will deliver to all Americans the opportunity they seek for their children and themselves: to reach for the American Dream in the Digital Age.

To reap the benefits of broadband and meet the challenge of global competition, our nation’s policymakers have made increased deployment of broadband a bigger national priority. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the “stimulus package,” allocates $7.2 billion to build out broadband in un- and underserved areas, as well as for public computing center capacity and other purposes. While a significant and welcome step forward, this initiative is not sufficient to provide universal access to high-quality Internet access.  ARRA also directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to formulate and deliver to Congress a National Broadband Plan for Our Future (NBP) by February 17, 2010. The Commission began the process of devising this Plan by publishing a Notice of Inquiry on April 8, 2009.

In early 2009, a broad cross-section of local, grassroots, and national public interest organizations joined together to articulate a shared vision of the elements that must be included in a successful National Broadband Plan. Beginning with community forums and outreach in Denver; San Antonio; Philadelphia; Oakland; New York City; Seattle; Burlington, Vermont; and Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, local grassroots constituents and advocates for broadband access put forth their ideas for Internet policies that would best serve their diverse communities. The groups then convened to distill the information and ideas gathered at these events into several key policy prescriptions that all groups supported. During this process, broadband policy experts at the nation’s leading public interest media advocacy groups provided valuable guidance and advice. However, the resulting paper remains an accurate reflection of the legitimate voices of grassroots advocates from outside the Beltway, and thus makes a unique and valuable contribution to the inside-the-Beltway policy debate.

While not a comprehensive recommendation on all of the broadband and Internet policies required, this paper does articulate the key policies and principles that unite a large and diverse coalition of public interest groups. We are united in recommending that the National Broadband Plan incorporate these core principles, each of which is discussed in detail in individual sections of this report:
1. Broadband communications is a fundamental right. To ensure this fundamental right, there must be universal and open, non-discriminatory access to high-speed and high-quality broadband. Mobility, abundance, and privacy of broadband should be top priorities.
2. Good policy must be well informed. Federal policymakers must have access to reliable data on where broadband presently exists, at what speeds, of what quality, by what provider, how it is used by consumers, why certain consumers do not use it, and how other consumers integrate it into their lives. These data must be as granular as possible, and should be made available in raw form on the Internet for analysis by the public.
3. Policy should promote competition, innovation, localism, and opportunity. Locally-owned and -operated networks support these core goals of Federal broadband policy, and therefore should receive priority in terms of Federal support. Structural separation of ownership of broadband infrastructure from the delivery of service over that infrastructure will further promote these goals.
4. Government should use public resources and assets wisely. Policymakers should seek to leverage to the maximum extent possible the use of resources and assets such as publicly-owned spectrum, fiber and rights-of- way to achieve the goal of universal broadband access to the Internet.
5. Federal policy must stress digital inclusion and the service of historically disenfranchised communities.  Stimulating broadband supply is necessary but not sufficient to achieve the goal of universal broadband.  Policymakers must also promote digital inclusion initiatives to stimulate broadband demand and ensure that all U.S. residents have access to the digital skills and tools necessary to take advantage of the Internet’s enormous potential benefits in creativity, economic development and civic engagement. This benefits not just those who would otherwise be left behind on the wrong side of the Digital Divide; it benefits all broadband users.

Specific policy recommendations are contained in the individual sections of this report dedicated to each of the above principles.

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