Thursday, October 22, 2009

Should There Be a Legal Right to Broadband? Finland Thinks So.

For the past week, there has been a buzz in the technology trade press, as well as in publications as diverse as Business Week and the Huffington Post, about the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications’ decision to give every person in Finland the right to a one-megabit broadband connection by July 2010. Come next summer, Finland will be the first country in the world which will have made guaranteed broadband access a civil right. While the Finland press agency YLE added that arrangements to achieve this goal may be made through alternative means, such as through mobile connectivity, the decision to move forward with this program has garnered attention all over the world.

And there’s more. The Huffington Post added that the Finnish government had already decided to make a 100 Mb broadband connection a legal right by the end of 2015.

According to the International Telecommunications Union, a branch of the United Nations, Finland had approximately 3,286,000 Internet users as of September 2005, comprising 62.3% of the population. In 2007, Finland ranked 8th worldwide in broadband penetration at 28% . By comparison, the United States ranks 19th with 21.4% penetration. While Finland’s broadband penetration is likely somewhat higher since last reported in 2007, the fact remains that Finland has a long way to go to not only bring broadband to its entire population, but to make it a guaranteed right. How can this be accomplished and how will it be paid for? What happens if the customer can’t afford the service? And, what impact does Finland’s decision have on us?

Finland is a republic with a parliamentary democracy. According to the official Finland Statistics web page, it is suffering through the global recession along with many other countries. Its unemployment rate stands at 7.3% and its Gross Domestic Product is -9.2%. It does not appear that within the next eight months Finland will be in a position to throw money around to reach the more than half of its population currently lacking broadband. There is no publicly available information as to how this will be paid for or accomplished. Higher taxes? Subsidies to broadband providers? There are multiple broadband providers in Finland, so a single solution seems unlikely.

While Finland is further along with its commitment to broadband deployment than the United States, it faces many of the same issues we have here, such as the rough state of its economy to the existence of multiple providers. Could we as a nation mandate broadband connectivity as a right for every man, woman, and child? In New York State, between DSL and cable modem service, deployment is at or above 90%, but the subscription rate hovers around 50%. Of course, the right to a broadband connection includes the right to decline the connection, but many New Yorkers who do not have broadband in their homes simply can not afford the service. To make actual use of broadband a “right,” financial support to the customer and/or the provider will become necessary. Where will this money come from?

PULP wholeheartedly supports the creation of a low income program for broadband access similar to the telephone Lifeline program. See PULP Applies to NTIA for Stimulus Funds to Expand Broadband Opportunities for Low and Fixed Income Consumers. Under PULP’s proposal, eligible households would receive a discount on their broadband access, as they currently do on their telephone service, and the funding for this program would come from either a surcharge on broadband customer bills or would be a percentage of the provider’s intrastate revenues.

What we’re talking about accomplishing in the United States – universal broadband – is essentially the same concept as Finland’s individual right to broadband. The universal service framework deals with the obligation of providers to provide service to all upon request, while the individual rights approach bestows on each citizen a claim of entitlement to the service. In both countries, financial help will be necessary to ensure all who want broadband can afford it.

Access to broadband may not (yet) be a right in our country as it is in Finland, but PULP’s low income proposal will help to achieve the universal broadband goal in the United States.

Lou Manuta

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