If Congress treated the airwaves as a common asset, it
would lease most of them at market rates for limited terms to the
highest bidders. The billions of dollars thus raised could buy free
airtime for political candidates, fund noncommercial radio and TV,
and help sustain the arts.
Alternatively, Congress could turn the airwaves into an open access
commons like roads and streets. Using technologies like wi-fi (wireless
fidelity), everyone could enjoy high-speed Internet access for
almost nothing. As of early 2006, nearly 150 U.S. cities were deploying
or planning public wi-fi networks. These efforts are hampered by
the fact that the frequencies allotted to wi-fi don’t travel
as far, or penetrate buildings as well, as do the frequencies given
to broadcasters. A bill to open unused TV channels for wi-fi has
been introduced by a group of senators, but it faces stiff opposition
from broadcasters, telephone, and cable companies.
The Internet is a human-made commons that, for all intents and
purposes, can be used without limit. It’s arguably the most
remarkable technological achievement of the twentieth century,
given that it revolutionizes commerce, community, and culture in
one swoop. As with other valuable commons, it’s coveted by
private corporations. The battle in coming years will be between
those who want to privatize big chunks of the Internet, and those
(including many corporations) who want it to be as free, universal,
and open as possible. What’s unusual is that this is one
of the few battlegrounds where those on the side of the commons
have an early edge.
One looming battle concerns access — in particular, bridging
the “last mile” between the Internet and the millions
of people (billions worldwide) who could use it, but now don’t.
When the Internet began, the last mile was typically crossed by
telephone. A user would dial up an Internet server and log on.
However, because telephone wires were sized for voice signals,
they can’t carry high volumes of data at high speeds.
In due time, cable companies began offering their thicker cables
to Internet users. Phone companies also came up with a system — DSL — that
squeezes more data through their skinny wires. There are thus now
two good ways to get high-speed access to the Internet — if
you can afford roughly $30 a month, or $360 a year. Since not everyone
can afford this, however, we have what some people call a digital
divide — a financial barrier to universal access.
This is where the airwaves come in. Using digital signals, it’s
now possible to bridge the last mile to the Internet through the
public’s own airwaves. Not only that, it’s incredibly
cheap to do so, using technologies like wi-fi. At the same time,
another technical breakthrough is imminent: the Internet — including
this last wireless mile — will soon be “thick” enough
to carry data, telephone calls, and television pictures. In theory,
a small public investment could bring all these services to the
doorsteps of virtually everyone. There’d be no more need
for private TV networks, telephone and cable companies. The so-called
information highway would be, like public streets, truly open and
This is an extraordinary possibility. Americans now pay some $300
billion a year for telephone and cable services; perhaps half of
this could be saved. That’s the equivalent of raising every
worker’s take-home pay by about $1,000 a year. It should
be cause for celebration.
What’s more, free universal Internet access would be a boon
to the corporate side of the economy — another example of
a commons having positive external benefits. Think of an urban
shopping street, or Main Street in a small town. Merchants on these
streets depend on foot traffic; the more passersby, the more sales
they make. If someone put checkpoints or tollbooths on these streets,
merchants would scream. So it is with the Internet. Everyone doing
business on the Internet wants more traffic. Making the Internet
free to all would be the best thing that ever happened to merchants.
Except, of course, for the phone-and-cable duopoly. In several
states, these powerful companies have pushed through laws prohibiting
cities from offering wireless Internet service, and they’ve
sponsored a similar ban in Congress. The companies say their right
to profit trumps the consumer’s right to save money and a
city’s right to serve its citizens. Many politicians still
buy that argument, so the end of this story has yet to be written.
A similar battle looms over what’s called “net neutrality.” At
the moment, the Internet — like the telephone system — treats
all content equally. No one’s data is discriminated against,
and no one’s gets favored either — your personal webste
is treated the same as Google’s. However, cable and phone
companies want to create a two-tiered Internet, with some content
providers getting slow speed and others — who pay the phone
and cable companies — getting high speed. That would
mean more revenue for the companies, but also a permanent
corporate content providers and everyone else.
Congress is now considering bills both to allow and to ban such
tiering, and the outcome as this is written is uncertain. ... read
the whole chapter