Let’s Redefine the Internet in Service to the Public

We remain encumbered by a system that strangles access and opportunity

This moment has intensified our awareness of the internet as central to the functioning of our economy, our society, and our daily lives. Of course, we already knew its importance—we understood that our access to information and our access to opportunity were intertwined. But this moment has laid bare the inequities in access and opportunity here in the U.S.: as students struggle to keep up with classes and schoolwork online, as households reimagine their routines and some members endeavor to work remotely, as video-calling has become an essential stand-in for human connection, as millions of people look for new jobs or file for unemployment assistance online, and as local governments work to keep up. It should not have taken us so long to recognize and recommit to the internet as a national good and  an essential utility—much like electricity and running water. But now that we’re here, let’s take this opportunity to return public interest to center stage in every consideration of internet infrastructure and the behavior of companies that control our access to it. To information. To opportunity. 

Today, our level of access is a function of where we live, and it’s dictated by the large, incumbent internet service providers (ISPs) that have become the modern-day Ma Bells. They choose where to build (or not), the quality of our connections, and how much we pay. It’s as if car companies built our local streets and controlled our freedom of movement— how fast we could go, where we could travel, at what cost, and in what vehicle. Under this vertically-integrated model, ISPs build and own the physical infrastructure, and then have monopoly rights for providing service—limiting choice for the majority of subscribers, and stifling the creation of new value-added services and content.

With this reality, it’s easy to forget that we, the public, funded most of the internet’s equivalents of interstates, freeways, and major streets. But when it came to the  local roads— the connections into our homes—we  let telephone and cable companies build and operate the “last mile.” The result was mostly dirt roads, and an approach that enforces ownership of a specific type of car—if there was any road at all. The FCC estimates (conservatively, since data is self-reported by ISPs) that 19 million Americans still lack access at threshold speeds (25/3 mbps), and 60% of those with access have just a single choice of provider, not to mention people in underserved or overlooked urban neighborhoods, rural communities, and on Indian reservations without access entirely. With ISPs in the driver’s seat (sorry!), they monopolize our access to information: impacting our educational attainment, whether our businesses can be competitive, the ability of our governments to provide essential public services, the resilience of our infrastructure, and the vitality of our communities. 

It was not always this way.

In the 1960s, the internet was created to serve public needs: first for military purposes, and then for communication between scientists. During this Cold War era, it was essential that communication between military and university computers would not be disrupted by bombs, or infiltrated by bad actors. To overcome this challenge, in 1968 DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) made contracts with BBN (Bolt, Beranek and Newman) to create ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network).

When this technology became available to the average consumer, connecting to the internet felt like an insurmountable technical barrier. It was in this context that the early ISPs, Dial-up access providers, (CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy) became essential; the ISP was a branded portal for the online experience. ISPs provided the connection, the tools to easily access the vast amount of information, and customer support to help make sense of  it all. 

ISPs became a proxy—an intermediary between the client and the services. But to consumers, the ISPs were the internet. This mindset—of ISPs and consumers—has persisted to the present day, and it’s why ISPs continue to dictate our access, despite continued, unmet, public needs. 

Now we must acknowledge that this model is failing us. The system we have today does not serve every community. It does not serve the Americans who need it most. Educational equity, the path to well-paid work, the ability to start a business, necessary upgrades to our infrastructure, the provision of critical public services (and how we access them)—it’s all on the line. And sitting in the wealthiest society in history, we should not be content to sit idly by while millions of people are being left behind, with little hope of ever catching up. 

Once again, we must prioritize critical public needs while we design new solutions for access to information. We must work to ensure equitable access to reliable and affordable internet connections, with networks that can adapt and grow to meet our future needs too. This work requires that we rethink who this essential infrastructure must serve. If we don’t think about the student, the work-from-home parent, the small business owner, and the public official committed to public service, we will get it wrong again. The time for the ISP-controlled, Ma Bell model is over. Intelligent information infrastructure in every community is essential to build vibrant, open futures. Open access fiber networks—where the critical infrastructure is neutral and built with an ethos of community benefit—are the solution.