A re-post of my article at the ABA’s Law Technology Today
But I added the photo on this page.
In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) classified broadband internet service access as a public utility.
The move was focused around the concept of net neutrality. The FCC’s Open Internet Rules claim to protect consumers by prohibiting things like throttling data speeds or giving prioritization to higher payers of internet services.
I laughed reading these “bright line rules” because the cellular plan I’m on unabashedly states that they will throttle my data content when I reach a monthly limit. I’ve experienced this throttling; it makes viewing almost every web page impossible.
And the prohibition of speed prioritization? This same service “allows” me the option of paying more money to get a faster Internet connection.
So is the FCC’s move lip-service only? And what does this have to do with lawyers? This article is a realistic perspective on the future of high speed internet access in rural U.S. areas. It will dispel the hype that we hear about broadband being a basic right and suggest practical solutions to the realities of internet connectivity and web page designs in an unequal-access world.
But back to the FCC and its broadband-is-now-a-utility declaration. Here are some preliminary questions:
- What is a public utility? Generally speaking, utilities include things like electricity, telecommunications, water, and sewage service.
- Are public utilities basic rights? That’s debatable. Some would say they are not; providers can shut off service for things like non-payment of electrical bills. On the flip side, many have argued there is a basic human right to water and sanitation, something that is being challenged in the Flint, Michigan water crisis, for example.
- Should we lump broadband Internet access in with this group? Is it a basic right? The reality is, high speed Internet access is not a basic right for all Americans. And it never will be.
I live in a town in Michigan in a county that is classified as rural. Technically I am about one mile beyond the town’s limit. And from here, I cannot get cable nor can I receive any type of wired-broadband Internet connectivity. And fiber optic internet connectivity (which has the fastest internet speeds)? Only in my dreams.
My options for internet access at home are satellite-connectivity for any home computers or cellular-connectivity through my smart phone. Both are nowhere near as fast or maintain as consistent a connection as a cabled or fiber optic Internet connections.
Now before you question if my house has running water and electricity (yes to both), I would like to also point out that I live about one mile from one of the largest universities in Michigan. I live one mile from 27,000 broadband-connected young folk! Yet I strongly believe that this Broadband-Internet-High-Speed-Is-A-Basic-Right idea is completely unachievable.
- When it comes to cable or fiber optic lines connecting to our homes, not everyone has them and not everyone will be able to get them.
We are a large nation in terms of geographic size. Rolling out cables or fiber optics to every U.S. home location is not going to happen. (See a comparison of cable to fiber optic connectivity here.) To connect to a private home, cables and lines must either be below ground or above. So that means either digging a ditch or connecting to utility poles. Digging new ditches to everyone’s home is expensive compared to the overhead alternative. The infrastructure is already in place regarding utility poles, however, not everyone can access them.
And for those who can access the utility poles, there is a lot of fighting both amongst them and to prohibit others from accessing these passageways.
To summarize: there is too much ground to cover to install underground cable or fiber optic lines to every U.S. home, it would be too expensive to install all of those underground lines to all rural dwellings, and there are too many players in the overhead line market who can’t, or won’t, form high speed internet agreements to serve the rural population.
Well, if we can’t be corded in rural areas, what else can we do?
Cut the cord!
But, this, too, is not an optimal solution…
- When it comes to cellular coverage and smart phone use, the data usage amount is routinely limited and the speed is not fast.
As mentioned above, living in a rural area and having a smart phone is not the same as living in an urban area. First, not every telecom company has service in rural areas. We still experience the “Can you hear me now?” phenomenon.
And of the smart-phone service we can get, there are issues like limited data amounts, or data plans that throttle users on so-called “unlimited” access plans. Where this is felt the most is when we try to watch video on our smart phones. It’s a sure-fire way to hit our data cap in record time!
But that is assuming we can even see the videos. Often, and despite what the marketing may say, the speed of internet access when using a smart phone is just plain painful. I explained the comparison of cable internet connection versus smart phone internet connection to my mother like this: cable is like a roaring river with rapids—you get a lot of water, but it doesn’t last too long. Smart phone access is like a long and winding stream that goes on and on—it’s a smaller amount of water, but it goes further. We, in rural areas, are most likely limited to a stream-type connection for our Internet access with our smart phones.
Well, then, what about satellite?
- When it comes to satellite subscriptions, the price is too high and the service is not consistent.
Satellite connections are also not as fast as wired speeds and the fees are really expensive. Plus, signals routinely drop. They drop. They drop. And then they drop. This makes Cloud-connectivity software something we try to stay clear of.
The Takeaways for Lawyers
The solution to all of this is not to force all rural inhabitants to move but to keep in mind the following… do not forget about we, the-non-broadband group, when you design websites and digital solutions.
- Start with mobile-optimized web pages and then do your desktop designs. One in five Americans do not have broadband access at home and also have relatively few options for getting online other than their cell phone. It’s not just we in rural America that are smart-phone dependent, though, and Pew Research has a great study on who else falls into this group. Again, remember that 20% of Americans are smart-phone dependent, so web pages should increasingly be designed, or at least responsive, for mobile viewing.
- Assume we will connect to your site with our smart phones (which, like a stream, are the furthest reaching but can be the slowest in terms of speed).
- Make it clear on your mobile-optimized sites that there may be more features on your desktop designs and provide us with a hyperlink to that site if we want to jump to it. This is an increasingly understood notion… that desktop websites have more features than mobile-optimized sites.
- Remember that our screen sizes are smaller so be efficient with your designs. Do not put in content that is not necessary or redundant on your mobile-optimized websites. Do not put in too many images; do not put in images that are too large in size. Law Practice Today provides an explanation on resolution, resizing, and re-sampling images. And although it loads quickly, try to limit your words, dear lawyers.
- Drop the auto-play of video content. Even animated .gifs are potentially problematic (and highly annoying). If you want to attract rural clients, drop video content altogether!
Remember, too, that high speed internet speeds vary depending upon what type of connection you use or have the ability to use (smart phone, satellite, cable, fiber optic). The gold star of universal broadband access is just not foreseeable given the problems noted above. It’s not a basic right; it’s not about being fair or unfair.
So let’s be realistic about what can, will, and should not be considered a basic right for the various ways to connect to the Internet in this very large country of ours. And on that note, because I wrote this article on my home computer, I must now drive into work to e-mail it.