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9 comments

Is the Internet a Utility?

Posted June 15, 2016 10:19 AM by HUSH

What’s your monthly internet bill look like? We are cordcutters in my house, so to facilitate our dozen streaming apps we pay for a ‘Turbo’ internet plan which promises download speeds of 20 Mbps and upload speeds of 2 Mbps. Netflix recently launched fast.com, a quick way to measure current download speeds, and it verifies that I’m getting my $60+ worth of internet each month. I also have no data cap, which is important because in January and February my household consumed more than 1TB of data (though we’re on track for just 600-700 GB in June).

I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones. I pay a not-outrageous price for a utility that delivers what it promised, and it allows us to watch, work and play simultaneously. Turns out, my service lags behind the national average. At the end of last year, the FCC reported that the national average internet speed at the end of 2014 was 31 Mbps.

My internet service provider is considered the best performing ISP in the state, but is typically vilified by consumers. After a recent merger a with lessor competitor, I’m worried my underaverage-yet-adequate internet service may suffer the effects. There is little to stop them, as in my county I only have access to one ISP, and the only other option is a mobile hotspot from a cell carrier, which has clear drawbacks.

Because of this natural monopoly, many people support the classification of internet services as a utility. In February 2015, the FCC established internet service as a quasi-utility. It used rules meant to regulate phone networks to say ISPs couldn’t discriminate between types of data traffic. However, no regulations about how ISPs price or provide services, or maintain or engineer networks, were established, which is the norm with other utilities.

Even though I’m worried about the leverage my ISP has on my services, I’m not sure if the internet is a utility. While it’s definitely important, the internet isn’t as essential as water, and it doesn’t quite have the significance of electricity, gas or public transportation either. These industries are regulated because the costs of building and operating a second option just don’t make sense. Yet in many markets, even in counties neighboring my own, two or more ISPs are operating.

Also, industries that are utilities are usually some of the worst performing. In 2013, ASCE gave America’s aging infrastructure a grade of D+, meaning on the whole it is slightly better than poor. The report covered energy, schools, parks, transit, roads, railroads, ports, inland waterways, bridges, aviation, wastewater and solid waste, levees and dams, hazardous waste, and drinking water. There is little evidence that municipalization will improve internet services.

Nonetheless, consumers such as myself shouldn’t be forced into a one-or-none scenario for internet service. And as internet access becomes arguably only more important, some oversight might be critical.

The majority of CR4 users are engineers and also use an ISP for access to this forum. I’d be interested if you feel the internet is better left in the hands of private companies or a utility.

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#1

Re: Is the Internet a Utility?

06/15/2016 3:11 PM

Was the phone company a utility before the internet? I think basic communication is a public utility....

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_utility

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#2

Re: Is the Internet a Utility?

06/15/2016 4:15 PM

You can live 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, or 3 weeks without food. For me, internet falls somewhere between air and water.

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#4
In reply to #2

Re: Is the Internet a Utility?

06/15/2016 9:40 PM

Probably, but not too much Rix. But for some youngsters, too much internet is deadly.

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#6
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Re: Is the Internet a Utility?

06/16/2016 2:17 PM

It's a tool, like a hammer. You can drive a nail with your hammer or smash your thumb with it!

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#3

Re: Is the Internet a Utility?

06/15/2016 5:50 PM

Maybe we will end up with the Rural Digification Act? A broadband in every pot.

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#5

Re: Is the Internet a Utility?

06/16/2016 10:30 AM

Which: Utility or Futility?

I lean toward the latter descriptor.

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#7

Re: Is the Internet a Utility?

06/17/2016 10:54 AM

The key point is: as a Utility (like Telephone Service) the FTC is able to impose 'Common Carrier' rules on the ISPs, to keep the internet Open, Fair, Neutral, and Free (Free as in 'free speech,' (Libre) not as in 'free beer" (gratis). That's an important distinction to make). As a 'not-Utility' The ISPs get to become the 'gatekeepers,' with the power to pick and choose what content is allowed to pass unfettered, what is forced into a 'slow lane' or degraded, and what is blocked.

This is not even the first time we've seen the abuse of the 'Gatekeeper' position; it was a response to the abuse in the manual telephone switching system that gave us the automated Telephone Switching:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strowger_switch#History

And history IS repeating itself, since ISPs, such as Comcast, are also Content Providers, and in direct competition with the Content Providers who do not own a portion of the 'internet backbone.' Comcast has been, on multiple occasions, been shown to be degrading NetFlix streams of movies, to 'encourage' people to use Comcast's own 'On Demand' streaming service.

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#8

Re: Is the Internet a Utility?

06/18/2016 6:45 AM

Consider yourself lucky in the USA. Here in the UK the Government’s aim is to provide superfast broadband (speeds of 24Mbps or more) for at least 95% of UK premises and universal access to basic broadband (speeds of at least 2Mbps). It remains an aim.

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#9
In reply to #8

Re: Is the Internet a Utility?

06/20/2016 3:19 PM

I'm confused; your complaint of country-wide broadband only makes be feel like I should be renting out a London flat.

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