Metered Broadband Won't Bridge the Digital Divide

by Martin Bosworth

The big news in tech circles today is that Time Warner is beginning its trial of metered broadband pricing in Beaumont, Texas. As you might expect, it's a combination of absurdly high prices and very low caps--the lowest tier of service is 768kps, capped out at 5 gigabytes per month, at $30 (before state and local taxes, I assume). Even a cursory browsing of the Internet's many options for video (both downloaded and streaming) could get you hitting your limit without realizing it. It's that kind of visionary forward thinking that has Time Warner spinning off said unprofitable cable unit in the first place. But there's a larger issue at work--the fact that all the pricing schemes in the world are no substitute for building networks strong enough to handle the massive amounts of rich content available to users today, and that many users are being locked out of access to that content in the first place.

As I wrote back in January when news of the experiment broke, there is a massive gap in access between those who regularly use the Internet, and those who do not--or cannot. This June 1 Chicago Tribune article beautifully illustrates how people who don't have regular Internet access--usually the poor, more often than not Black or Latino, too often women--can be almost completely barred from participating in our modern society:

Two years ago, Smith's daughter gave her a used computer with the hope it would improve her life. High-speed Internet service is available in the West Woodlawn neighborhood where Smith, 53, has lived for 15 years. But the computer sits idle because Smith, a security guard, can't afford the charges that can add from $20 to $33 or more to monthly phone bills. Increased costs of rent, food and utility bills have made it harder for her to get by, she said. As she sat on the steps of a two-flat where she lives near 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, she spoke almost wistfully of what life might be like if she could cross the digital divide. "I feel like I'm missing out on something," Smith said. "I could pay my bills online, I could shop online, I could even send out resumes to find a better-paying job."

It's amazing to think that the kind of uses we have for the Web--that we take for granted every time we log on to our blogs, Web sites, social networks, and the like--are inaccessible to people right here in this country, allegedly the wealthiest and most developed nation on Earth. To paraphrase Walt Mossberg's infamous questioning of FCC chairman and telecom hack Kevin Martin, "How could you let this happen?" As Drew Clark chronicles here, it's going to take more than even measuring broadband availability to address the problem. We have to commit to the idea of the Internet as a public good, accessible to all of us through a variety of ways. This means everything from supporting buildouts of municipal Wi-fi connections and hotspots to ensuring that incumbent telecom and cable networks don't avoid their responsibility to reach every part of a community when introducing new services--not simply building out to the richest neighborhoods and "redlining" the rest. Investing in the public infrastructure of the Internet is going to be costly--there's no denying that. But when you consider the costs of all the lost jobs, innovation, productivity, and new ideas that come from locking out thousands of people simply due to location or price, that cost is far higher. And all the attempts to (in Wire parlance) "juke the stats" through metered broadband caps, content blocking, and other unsavory practices won't change that.

ADDENDUM: In rereading this post, I kept thinking there was something really obvious I was missing. As is often the case, it took someone else to point it out--in this case, a poster at OpenLeft: Just another day in the conservative economy; find a bottleneck, keep it a bottleneck, extract rent...This is the conservative Bushnomics to a T. Instead of investing in new capacity, make more efficient use of existing capacity by rationing based on people's ability to pay and profit. Raise the barrier to entry so that monopolies are not threatened. Of course! What better way to ensure the digital divide is maintained and users remain passive consumers as opposed to active content generators than by limiting the amount of bandwith they can use according to how much they pay? Under plans like these, only people with heavy amounts of disposable income and free time will be able to build the YouTubes of the world...everyone else will be nervously checking their limits and shying away from using or building anything truly innovative. Completely unacceptable.

Reprinted from Martin Bosworth's Boztopia


Martin Bosworth passed away earlier in the year. Not only did this leave me without one of my first internet guides, it left me with a broken link since Martin's ISP decided to take boztopia down. I thought then and still do that it was a brilliant and insightful article. The subject and content has impact globally, with particular import for Canada, where our regulatory body the CRTC has just given Canada's major internet carrier/ISP approval to introduce Usage Based Billing. This is why I so badly wanted to maintain the link to the article in the Stop Usage Based Billing blog sidebar.

In the meantime, I've nominated Martin for a posthumous Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award because of the body of work he did advocating for both human rights and internet freedom. I don't know if they even do posthumous awards, and if they don't, this is my small way to honor this fine internet freedom fighter. There is no doubt in my mind that Martin would have won an EFF Pioneer award eventually.

I'd especially like to thank Martin's sister Leah Root for keeping up the search for this specific article, then forwarding a copy to me with permission to reprint it. I'm also happy that Leah is hoping to restore the boztopia site as much as possible, because I only had the opportunity to read some of his writing. In the meantime some of Martin's work can be found here. There is also a Facebook Martin Bosworth, in Memorium Page.

Laurel L. Russwurm, August 10th, 2010

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