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It sounded too good to be true. And it was. Although the Federal Communications Commission had been preparing to vote on a controversial free Internet plan, the meeting, scheduled for December 18, was canceled. Before yesterday, the FCC, under the guidance of Chairman Kevin Martin, had been considering whether to auction off a portion of wireless spectrum (known as AWS-3) under the condition that the winning bidder provide some of the airwaves as a free service to 95 percent of the U.S. population within 10 years. This free network, filtered for pornography and material deemed unsuitable for children, would have provided millions of Americans who either are unable to afford or choose not to pay for high-speed Internet access.
Although free Internet for the masses sounds appealing at first glance, numerous top officials, wireless providers, and civil rights groups opposed the plan, arguing that the devil is in the details. Opposition groups all have very different concerns regarding the plan’s implementation. While the Bush administration is against imposing requirements on spectrum buyers, the Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Marc Rotenberg, expressed concern that a “government-mandated filter at the network level means the government can block anything it finds objectionable.” Although existing wireless providers (particularly T-Mobile) objected to the plan for other reasons, citing potential interference and service disruptions, the FCC disproved this claim in October. While these points have some merit, are they really enough of a reason to deny everyone free Internet access?
Currently, the U.S. has fallen out of the top 10 countries in the world in terms of household broadband usage, asserted the policy director of the nonprofit Free Press, Ben Scott. The U.S. has clearly fallen behind its fellow developed countries and, according to Scott,
“[M]ost of the world’s leading nations have half a dozen or more different companies offering a similar broadband product. They’re competing on price. They’re competing on speed. They competing on the attractiveness of the services they offer on top of their broadband package.”
Clearly, the U.S. has some catching up to do. As mentioned in a previous post, President-elect Obama may be able to jump start some Internet-related policies where the FCC currently cannot. The FCC certainly has its hands full, as its leader has recently been accused of ignoring his responsibilities and abusing his power as FCC chariman, although it’s not clear that Martin violated any law. Given the jumbled state of affairs at the FCC, maybe it’s better that we wait and see what the Obama administration plans to accomplish before we discard the idea of free Internet for all.
–Sara Beth Myers
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