White House report says Internet is a 'core utility' just like electricity

A White House report says broadband Internet is a core utility people need to participate in modern society. But millions of Americans, especially in rural areas, still don't have access to high-speed Internet.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
A White House report says that even though broadband access is a "core utility," millions of Americans still lack access. The report recommends modernizing federal programs designed to expand broadband networks in rural and underserved areas.

Broadband Internet access is a “core utility” that people need in order to participate in modern society– just like electricity, running water, and sewers, the White House said on Tuesday. A report written by the Broadband Opportunity Council, a group created earlier this year by President Obama and co-chaired by the Secretaries of Commerce and Agriculture, says that even though broadband “has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility,” millions of Americans still lack high-speed Internet access.

The report cites 2013 data indicating that about 51 million Americans, or about 16 percent of the population, cannot purchase broadband access at their homes. That number may have dropped by now, but the White House says the government needs to make a bigger push to expand broadband deployment, especially in rural areas and low-income communities.

There’s no one federal agency responsible for promoting broadband, although a lot of funding comes from the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries get access, and the larger Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes Internet and phone access in remote and underserved parts of the country. The White House report says that altogether, federal programs to improve broadband access amount to about $10 billion in spending per year – and that many of those programs are badly in need of modernization. Federal agencies have committed to putting the report’s recommendations, including streamlining construction procedures and simplifying broadband permitting, into action within the next 18 months. 

The idea that broadband access is a “core utility” has been gaining traction among policymakers in recent years, although it’s far from a universally held view. In February the FCC voted to regulate Internet providers as “common carriers” similar to telephone companies, stating that Internet access is a public utility just like electricity or water. In June, however, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly argued that “Internet access is not a necessity” and that it “doesn’t even come close to the threshold to be considered a basic human right.” 

The FCC used to consider Internet service “high speed” if it could download data at a rate of at least four megabits per second (Mbps), and upload it at a rate of at least one Mbps. In January the FCC voted to revise the definition to at least 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up – enough speed for someone to stream videos from Youtube or Netflix, upload and download documents or photos, or connect to a work server. (The difference in speed is a little bit more than the difference between 3G and 4G LTE mobile networks.) Internet carriers can qualify for government funding when they build networks in rural areas as long as those networks are capable of delivering at least 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.

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