Should Broadband Be a "Utility?" … Or Is Broadband Already That?

By Paul Maxwell Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Should Broadband Be a "Utility?" … Or Is Broadband Already That?

Well, "no" … but broadband is trying to be one without quite the same obligations. Broadband doesn't want to be rate-regulated. Duh. Broadband is basically a smart, relatively new, almost mandatory infrastructure majority owned by cable TV companies. Kind of like telephone service in the days of yore. But cable does have competition for its broadband service. Namely fiber or 5G or fixed wireless. In a few instances, all are controlled by the legacy cable TV operator.

Interestingly, incumbent cable is now more often being attacked by a competitor that is basically from technical and legal standpoints the same kind of operator, known as an "overbuilder."

Not all that long ago, the overbuilder was known as "ludicrous" … or, at best, a slow learner. After all, the overbuilder is most often tied to the same contractual structure with the rights partner municipality as the incumbent provider. It was once quite monetarily difficult to compete. It still is. But many are now doing with better marketing and (in some cases) better management and better product. In fact, many have become quite successful.

So, we get to the central question of this piece: Should broadband be a utility?

From the way I've framed this, you might have a clue to where I stand. But let's hear instead from some readers of The Wall Street Journal:

On August 12 "The 10-Point" (a daily feature in the WSJ that serves as a guide to the day's top content and includes a question with answers) included a question about whether the government should do more to dictate the price and availability of high-speed internet. There were four answers.

First, from the "leave-alone" contingent, Pat Janecek of Alabama wrote, "Does the government install, maintain and troubleshoot high speed internet? Are they the internet provider? If not then they should stay out of the pricing business. We don't need more bureaucrats setting prices for products they know nothing about. Internet pricing should be a business decision."

In a similar vein, Rich Irwin from Ohio wrote, "No. I say let the free market and the consumer decide. If I don't want high-speed internet, I shouldn't have to pay for it nor subsidize others who do."

On the bring-on-the-regs side, Caf Dowlah of New York wrote, "Yes, internet should be considered a utility like gas, water and electricity. Government, as an agent of collective will, should intervene in the market -- make access to an internet connection mandatory for every home (where a cable connection is needed), just like gas, water and electricity connections. And pricing must be regulated to bills depending upon usage -- just like gas, water and electricity. The more you use, the more you pay."

And Scott A. Mugno of Alabama wrote, "Reliable, affordable, last-mile fiber-optic broadband is a utility as important as electricity and water today. Without it there is no growth or development for our children or communities. That large portions of rural America and inner cities don't have access to such broadband is largely due to the large internet providers. Their recent efforts to prevent requirements for affordable high-speed broadband in the recent infrastructure bill demonstrate government's failure to ensure this utility for all its citizens."

So, is broadband a utility that calls out for regulation or not?

In a closely related side issue, we should keep in mind the exceedingly rare compromise of a bipartisan group of outlier politicians who have joined together to label the internet as infrastructure … or the beginning of a major change in how to look at the business of supplying access to the internet.

And now, for the critical question of who should pay for this "utility" … the usage concept is interesting and it suggests strongly that the fringe users of the internet should pay their fair share. So, at what level should Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix, Twitter and all of those "+" streamers actually pay? Any suggestions?

Random Notes: Should you have any answers or responses to these questions, e-mail me at and I'll track them and reply. Jokes are welcome as well.

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