When we turn on a faucet or a light switch we expect water to flow or the lights to come on. When we turn up the thermostat in the winter we expect things to warm up a bit. Back in the day of landlines when we picked up a telephone we expected a dial tone. We paid the monthly bills and we got what we paid for. These utility services were and still are reliable. So much so that when the rare outage or service disruption occurs, it is indeed rare and in most cases tied to some sort of event like a storm or a water main break. Our expectations are so conditioned to utilities working that they have transcended being an expectation to a fact of life. There’s even a clever mind game we play when the power goes out as we realize just how much of a fact of life these utilities have become and how much we rely on them.
To call these utilities essential is accurate. Their “essentialness” has led to regulation regarding pricing and how the service providers must provide. Now in the age of mobile connectivity we are seeing the rise of another “essential” service, but to date we don’t classify broadband delivery as a utility. I’m sure that some might still argue that cellular and cable access to the Internet isn’t as essential as water, electricity, landline phone service, or heat. But that is slowly beginning to change.
Increasingly that is not the case and that’s why I would offer that the FCC should declare broadband delivery as a utility. With more services allowing more users to conduct ordinary business online (banking, health care, education, sales, etc…) than ever before there is the same expectation of having a connection to the Internet as there is from flipping on a light switch.
Unfortunately we haven’t yet reached a point where that expectation can be fully realized. I’m not talking about rural areas where the build out of networks lag behind for profit reasons. Although that is concern that has a better chance of being corrected if broadband access is declared a utility. I’m talking about the fact that users often find that connectivity comes and goes, surges and lags, and consistently is inconsistent in a persistent location.
I’m sure some of you have worked in an office where the cry goes up that the Internet is down and all work ceases until it returns. Likewise I am sure you or someone you know has needed to go online to take care of some piece of business and not been able to connect for whatever reason. At times these can be viewed as an inconvenience. Increasingly, however, our reliance on the Internet is becoming more than just a convenience as we do our daily chores.
Let me cite three examples. Since December I have been traveling quite a bit and living in different accommodations. Some of that was by design and some of that was because of having our condo repaired and restored due to water damage. I’m a mobile geek so it is a part of my routine to make sure I have connectivity if I am traveling. In all circumstances ((hotel(s), company housing, friend’s homes)), I worked to make sure I had the connectivity I needed. That included WiFi as well as cellular broadband.
If you’re into that routine I’m sure you have that same moment of relief I do when you find out that you have coverage and connectivity in a new location. I’m also sure you experience the same moments of frustration when that same “reliable” connectivity becomes less reliable. I’m not taking about the ability to upload pictures, play games, or stream a video. I’m talking about the ability to get work done or complete an important communication or business transaction. There is nothing more frustrating than experiencing a decrease in connectivity when you are in the same static location using the same equipment. If our water services worked this way, we would experience different water flow and quality at seemingly random times when we turn on the faucet.
Below are two screenshots taken on my travels within two hours of each other at the same location with the same equipment.
As our expectations of connectivity continue to rise, our reliance does as well. In the second example, I watched in dismay while working on a recent production when the team had to spend extra cash on a prop purchase because connectivity that all were used to working failed. An important email requesting a purchase authorization didn’t come through until too late to make the call. The materials weren’t purchased and when the authorization was later received the materials were no longer available locally.
In the third example, I listened to the frustrations of a friend who had tried desperately to pay the next installment on her child’s tuition online when she couldn’t get through via her 4G LTE connection. Sadly, once she had set up online payments, she couldn’t make a payment via phone without first connecting to the website that she couldn’t connect to, to change her payment method. She was trying to make this payment at home using a Tablet with 4G LTE the way she had done several times before, but she could not connect to the network. (Intriguingly, she does not have a WiFi connection in her home, instead using a 4G LTE connection because that is faster and more reliable than the WiFi she had previously.)
There is a level of complacency and acceptance that those of us who have been around to participate in the rise of broadband connectivity seem to have. We recognize some of the flaws in the system like server failures and crowded cell traffic in busy areas. But the next generation that is just beginning to get their hands on mobile devices are doing so at a time when the expectations game is a different one. The difference between today’s connectivity and what we had just a decade ago are akin to the differences between using candles for illumination and electricity.
There are also security hurdles and privacy issues to overcome, in addition to just making sure we can connect when we need to. And while the success of the Internet has largely come about through business initiatives, those same business concerns will at some point require regulation and political mandates to keep commerce flowing smoothly. The first step in that path is to treat broadband connectivity of all stripes as a utility.
There are those, beyond the companies that provide access, who fear a utility classification. Some think a move towards any sort of regulation of the Internet has to the potential to make things less free, and subject to restrictions. I would argue that regardless of a “utility” classification that is already the case and that a “utility” classification might actually make flipping an “Internet kill switch” a little harder.
As we watch governments around the world turn off the Internet when domestic disturbances occur, there is no greater argument to be made as to why our US broadband connectivity should be classified as a utility. It won’t stop a “kill switch” from being flipped. But it would at least require a different level of thought and accountability before doing so.
In my view, the time has come to make this “utility” classification. Those who sell us access to the Internet need the same scrutiny that our existing utilities are subject to. Standards and expectations of delivery need to be set, met, and kept. Will the Internet keep going and growing without that sort of classification? Yes. Should it? No.