The Federal Communications Commission has just issued a landmark ruling to reclassify broadband internet services as a utility, over the protests of industry giants like Comcast and AT&T, along with conservatives convinced that the entire affair is a clever socialist plot from the White House. The decision has huge ramifications for the future of the internet in the United States—broadband lies at the core of the net neutrality debate—but it’s also a telling illustration of the state of affairs when it comes to the internet across the globe, because when compared with other Western nations, the US ranks rather shabbily. It doesn’t even come in at the top ten on the list of nations with the highest speeds, and that’s surprising, coming from a supposed tech giant.
This FCC ruling could finally change that, bringing the United States in line with the rest of the world in terms of internet speeds. In addition to making a huge difference for Netflix streamers from coast to coast, the ruling could also have ramifications for US education, the economy, and more. With the internet a growing necessity in our lives, access to fast, reliable service is becoming not just a luxury, but a requirement for functioning in the modern world—and this issue is particularly acute for low-income people in the United States who need the resources the internet can provide.
In the short term, the new FCC rule means that the agency can regulate broadband service like it does telephones, instead of treating it as an exception. This is precisely why conservatives are infuriated by the ruling, as they view any sort of regulation proposals negatively, and that doesn’t stop with broadband. It also means, by extension, that the feared ‘internet fast lane’ will not come to pass; the FCC can mandate equal access on broadband channels, refusing to allow ISPs to throttle or prioritise traffic. Your Hulu will load at the same speed as your New York Times as your tiny feminist blog that couldn’t have afforded to pay a priority to ensure that it had equal standing with other internet traffic.
This, the net neutrality debate, lay at the heart of the FCC ruling, which some feared could create an internet of differential access, one in which the ability to pay mattered more than freedom of information and expression. When the agency opened the matter to discussion, it received over four million comments—a landslide of public response that overwhelmingly supported net neutrality, while numerous websites joined the choir to argue for equal access.
Several communities will particularly benefit from the FCC ruling. Many rural communities in the US struggle to access broadband, with rural broadband penetration remaining extremely low. Notably, likely in preparation for this ruling, the FCC just redefined broadband speeds, updating its woefully out-of-step standards—the move highlighted just how bad access is in many rural communities, illustrating that there is a significant digital cliff for people living in the US.
Poor internet access means limitations on educational opportunities, with rural schools struggling to meet the needs of their students. It also means communities can’t take advantages of resources like remote medical consultations; most rural regions cannot afford to support specialists, and rely on rotating physicians, so remote consultations open up the possibility of being able to see a specialist over an internet platform immediately, rather than having to wait. Moreover, rural communities without broadband have limited resources to offer people who want to research career and education opportunities; even something as simple as researching how to write a resume is functionally impossible on dialup speeds.
Treating internet access as a utility will facilitate connections for these communities, bringing them into the digital world. It will also have a huge impact on the tech industry in the United States. Despite Silicon Valley’s iconic position—and the lightning-fast speeds delivered across the region—the US tech industry still suffers as a result of poor broadband penetration and limitations on average internet speeds. While numerous tech firms, startups, and incubators find Silicon Valley perfectly amenable to their needs, better speeds will undoubtedly entice more talent as well as people from a broader assortment of fields, like academic researchers who need access to high-speed internet to conference with colleagues and transmit large quantities of data.
For the US economy, this could result in a huge boost—more broadband services means more growth for service providers, more potential competition, and better opportunities for companies large and small. Keeping the internet neutral also promotes innovation and allows driven creators and thinkers to make their place in the world. Had the FCC not ruled on the matter, the tech industry might have dwindled to a handful of firms with the name recognition, funds, and power to get what they wanted within a tightening landscape of limited access.
The FCC has made a firm commitment to open and free internet services in the United States, with conservatives already complaining that the decision represents ‘meddling’ and a ‘power grab’ on the part of the agency. Yet, it’s clear that when the internet was left unregulated and fending for itself, freedom of expression was going downhill, fast. It comes as no surprise to learn that US conservatives are opposed to freedom of speech and the free exchange of information, but it’s a pleasure to see the government standing up to them for once in an era where it often feels as though the United States has become a nation ruled by conservative ‘values’ to the exclusion of the expressed wishes of the populace.