managed-broadband1On December 7, the world will come to the Scandinavian city of Copenhagen, Denmark to negotiate a global agreement on climate change. As the 15th Conference of the Parties approaches, the developing world continues to struggle to secure a “right to development.” But another “right” has garnered a lot of press in recent days in Scandinavia–the right to broadband Internet access.

On October 16, the government of Finland made broadband Internet service a legal right when it announced the passage of a new law to guarantee that all citizens are legally entitled to a minimum broadband connection speed of one megabit per second. The law defines the one megabit Internet connection as a “universal service” and will require telecom operators defined as universal service providers (USPs) to be able to provide every permanent residence and business office with access to a reasonably-priced and high-quality connection with a downstream rate of at least one megabit per second.

The USPs can decide the technology they wish to use for the service, and some variation will be allowed in the universal service connection speed to enable services in mobile networks. The Finnish Communications Regulatory Authority will be responsible for monitoring compliance with the connection speed requirement. The length of the transition period before the universal service obligation starts has been reduced by six months from the previous plan, with the new law taking effect on July 1, 2010.

Finland’s move has mixed implications. On the one hand, the law will have very little practical effect as the country is already one of the best wired in the world. Ninety-five percent of Finland’s 5.2 million people is already hooked up to some form of Internet connection. But Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Commerce says the measure is designed to bring the Web to rural areas, where geographic challenges have limited access until now.

On the other hand, it is a move that highlights an uncomfortable reality at this critical time in geopolitical history–the developed and developing worlds may be even further apart than we had realized.

A spokesperson for Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications called universal service “every citizen’s subjective right.” “We think it’s something you cannot live without in modern society. Like banking services or water or electricity, you need Internet connection,” she said.

Finland is not alone in this view. The United Nations is also pushing to make Internet access a human right and in June, France’s Constitutional Council declared access to Internet to be a basic human right. But Finland goes a step further by legally mandating the speed of this connection. According to the legislative counselor of the Ministry of Transport and Communications, the one megabit mandate is simply an intermediary step. The country is aiming for speeds that are 100 times faster–100 megabits per second–for all by 2015.

The United States is the only industrialized nation without a national policy to promote high-speed broadband. According to a study released in August by the Communications Workers of America, the country’s largest media union, forty-six percent of rural households do not subscribe to broadband and usage varies based on income.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is expected to submit a national plan to Congress in February. But the estimated costs for universally upgrading the minimum speed of the nation’s broadband connections to three megabits per second would be about $20 billion, while getting to ten megabits would be around $50 billion. To play in the same league as Finland, with its goal of 100 megabits per second by 2015, would require around $350 billion–much higher than the $7.2 billion President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package has set aside for the task. Even if it were feasible, should we spend this kind of capital on extending access to the Internet when people still go without access to education and health care?

When the world meets in Copenhagen for the next round of climate talks, how will countries with “the right to broadband” negotiate with countries still struggling to secure a “right to development”?

Elizabeth M. Renieris

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