Is Broadband a Fundamental Human Right?
In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This landmark document set forth a series of fundamental human rights upon which entire government principles are based. The Declaration itself is a living document that changes to keep pace with the times. In our hyperconnected world, should broadband be added to that list of human rights?
In March 2010, the BBC reported that four out of five adults considered Internet access a fundamental right. An international polling firm surveyed 28,000 adults across 26 countries, including 14,000 Internet users for BBC World Service between November 30, 2009 and February 7, 2010. According to the survey, “nearly four in five (78%) said they felt (the Internet) had brought them greater freedom; nine in ten (90%) said they thought it was a good place to learn; and just over half (51%) said they now enjoyed spending their spare time on social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace” (BBC, 2010).
The explosion of social media and other free applications, cloud computing, digital advertising and smart phones fuel the fire. Broadband is essential to take advantage of sophisticated applications. Regardless, the U.S. still lags at 20th in broadband penetration per household compared to other developed countries (Anderson, 2009). While the U.S. struggles with private protectionist practices and monopolistic tendencies to control the information superhighway, countries less constrained are leapfrogging the U.S. with a more holistic approach to broadband access.
Broadband is our generation’s great infrastructure challenge. The new Administration recognizes the missed opportunity and is responding accordingly. In 2009, The American Recovery and Investment Act appropriated $7.2 billion to promote broadband access to underserved communities. On March 16, 2010, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski presented a National Broadband Plan outlining the importance of universal broadband access. His assertion was that broadband is essential to our global competitiveness, will create opportunities for all Americans in all communities and can help solve many challenges we face in education, health care, energy and public safety (Genachowski, 2010).
What’s new is old again.
The challenge of how to distribute technology universally has been addressed several times over in our democratic society that holds equal opportunity in high regard. The challenges of universal broadband access are rooted in the century-old communication infrastructure and business models of the telephone industry. Stepping further back into history, expanding railroads across a growing nation was the challenge. How to provide electricity to rural and remote areas of the country followed soon after.
The pattern of disruptive technology dependant on land use follows a recognizable pattern: 1) Invention and novelty; 2) limited access to private and competing companies; 3) government intervention in the free market; and 4) last mile connectivity and universal access. Railroads, electricity and telephony began with limited access and distribution solely controlled by private enterprise. In each case, a governmental or quasi-governmental intervention stepped in to address “last mile” connectivity—universal access for the common good. There is little historic evidence to suggest that universal broadband access will mature differently in our generation’s challenge.
We are heading in the right direction. However, broadband access alone is merely the on-ramp to the information superhighway. Access does not guarantee equality or economic, educational or social development. Broadband may not make it into the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights directly, but it fits squarely into Article 27, which states everyone has the “right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, enjoy the arts, and share in its scientific advancements and benefits.” At 140 characters, you can tweet that.
Note: The author is assisting the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications Infrastructure Administration in reviewing program applications to expand broadband access and spur economic growth under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.