• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Public Internet

A great idea whose time has come.

June 26, 2020
 
 

Pam Eddinger, the president of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, tweeted something so true and helpful that it really deserves much more attention that it received. She was responding to a story about students who struggle with broadband access, which is utterly devastating when classes are being held remotely. As she put it, universal Wi-Fi is “one of the few cross-sector silver bullets. No downside for Public K12 and Higher Ed, Public Health, Business and Commerce. #nodownside”

I couldn’t agree more.

Our current system of broadband is the worst of all worlds. It’s basically a patchwork of unregulated monopolies, or, if you’re lucky, duopolies. Although broadband functions like a utility, we treat it like a discretionary consumer item. That enables providers to charge pretty much whatever they want, knowing that most customers have little choice but to pay it. Longtime readers can recall me ranting from time to time about my struggles with Comcast back in Massachusetts; the root of those struggles was that there was no other provider. I couldn’t take my business elsewhere unless I was willing to go without internet entirely, which wasn’t a realistic option. A regulated system could provide more reasonable rates, as we have with electricity. A competitive market could provide better service and better rates. But an unregulated private monopoly is abuse waiting to happen.

For many of our students, internet access is a greater challenge than a device. We can (and do) loan out laptops, but they’re only useful when they’re connected. Used laptops or iPads are fairly cheap, but monthly broadband isn’t.

This isn’t just an issue for colleges. If it wasn’t obvious before the shutdown, it should be clear beyond argument now that fast, reliable, affordable internet access is a prerequisite for engagement in the larger economy. Cheap and excellent broadband is a tool for equity, but also for economic development. It would particularly help low-income people, but everyone would benefit from being able to tell exploitative monopolists to go pound sand. Providing broadband on a universal basis would give it a broad base of political support, protecting it against bands of roving austerians. It’s both egalitarian and pro-market; in many ways, the arguments for it are parallel to the arguments for good public education.

In trying to come up with reasonable counterarguments, I couldn’t come up with many. Perhaps my wise and worldly readers can (while there’s still time!).

The current monopolists can be counted on to oppose it, out of simple self-interest. Foxes don’t like locked henhouses, either. “But my windfall profits!” doesn’t generate much sympathy.

The more serious position, to the extent that it is, would come from an ideological objection to public enterprise generally. This is a trickier position, because instead of arguing that public broadband is a bad idea because it would fail, it holds that public broadband is a bad idea because it would succeed. That would build faith that the government, as the agency of the public, can actually accomplish things. For folks committed to an antigovernment ideology, that’s heresy.

Of course, the internet’s origin story, ARPANET, was entirely about public enterprise and government funding. At its core, the internet is stronger when more people have access to it. That includes people who aren’t immediately “profitable.” It includes people like community college students.

Kudos to Eddinger for connecting the dots on a crucial issue with which we could conceivably ally with business, K-12 and nearly everybody with a sense of pragmatism. She’s right. Online classes only work if folks can get online.

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Program note: The blog will take its annual summer break next week, returning after the Fourth of July. Have a great week, everyone!

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