Post

Access to high-speed Internet is an economic matter

March 16, 2007 ,

Note: This item is reprinted from the March 16 edition of the Gazette (Politics and Business) published weekly in several communities in Montgomery, Prince George's, Frederick and Carroll counties in Maryland.

The big telephone and cable companies have a secret. The leadership of the House of Delegates is perfectly willing to let them keep it, taking the side of the two companies which in recent days each raised their rates while supposedly competing against each other, rather than help consumers by taking an action to help spur competition in Maryland broadband services.

There is no dispute that the Internet has become as valuable to most people as electricity or telephone service. By any measure, access to the Internet opens up a whole range of new opportunities, from students doing homework, to entrepreneurs developing new products to people who work from home.

But not everyone's Internet access is equal any more. Some places, like my neighborhood in Olney, have been outfitted with the newest and fastest optical fiber from Verizon, to go along with Comcast's Internet service. But other neighborhoods around the state have to make do with the old dial-up service, which was fine 15 years ago, but doesn't work well today with newer, more complicated Web sites offering video and music and other features.

Not long ago, a constituent asked Del. Herman Taylor (D-Dist. 14) of Ashton why her neighborhood was stuck with the slow Internet service while others had the good stuff. Taylor tried to find which neighborhoods were being served and which weren't. He discovered there was no good information. The statistics collected by the Federal Communications Commission are meaningless. And, Taylor had concerns about some areas being left out of the high-speed Internet evolution in an electronic red-lining.

So, being a responsive legislator, he introduced a bill (HB-1069) — which was later pulled from consideration — requiring any companies offering high-speed Internet service (also known as broadband) to report to the Public Service Commission where the service is being offered. The PSC, in turn, would post those reports online.

The Attorney General's office thought the reporting was a good idea, saying in a letter to Del. Mary Anne Love (D-Dist. 32) of Glen Burnie that ''the public availability of such information could arguably advance competition.” It would advance competition throughout the state as consumers could see whether they were going to be favored with the best service.

But Verizon and Comcast didn't like the idea of having to make public where they would put their improved services, so they launched an attack. While they called the reporting requirements ''onerous,” they muddied the issue by directing their ire at another part of the bill that suggested that companies offering high-speed Internet service do so without playing favorites, as the states being served by AT&T will be required to do as a condition of that company's merger with BellSouth. It was only a ''finding” or suggestion, because state legislatures don't have the authority regulate the Internet. There was no regulation involved.

Yet, at an Economic Matters Committee hearing, Verizon and Comcast representatives made charges that the bill would regulate the Internet, cost jobs, stop innovation and even close down coffee houses. None of that was true. The committee members should have known it, but instead they listened to the scare stories, ignoring all the e-mails and calls from people who wanted to know where they were in the Internet pecking order.

If you want to see the future of the Maryland economy, you need to know where, when and how broadband is growing. The bill was within the authority of the state to collect information about services being offered in the state. But according to the House, Verizon and Comcast and their lobbyists know best. Apparently it wasn't enough of an economic matter.

Art Brodsky of Olney is communications director for Public Knowledge, a District-based public interest group working to maintain an open Internet.