What Does It Mean to Declare Broadband a “Human Right,” and What Are the Costs?

by on October 18, 2011 · 4 comments

Freelance journalist Laurence Cruz was kind enough to call me recently looking for comment on whether broadband should be considered a human right. Well, actually, he probably didn’t have many options. If you do a quick search on the topic, you’ll find an endless stream of essays in favor of the proposition.  Then, somewhere in the mix, you’ll find a few dissenting rants I’ve penned here in the past. So I’m getting used to playing the baddie in this drama.

Cruz’s essay is now up over at “The Network,” which is Cisco’s technology news site. Here’s what I had to say in opposition to the proposition:

Not everyone is so ready to jump aboard this particular broadband bandwagon. “I don’t think there is any such thing as a human right to free, unlimited broadband service,” says Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, a market-oriented academic research institution at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. “The entitlement or rights mentality in America today is completely out of control.”

Thierer says he’s a firm believer in such fundamental human rights as freedom of speech, expression, movement and association—so-called “negative rights” that don’t require any assertion of government authority or demand payment from anybody. But he says any proposed right to broadband access is a different animal altogether—one likely to come at taxpayers’ expense and to have all manner of unintended consequences, from squelching competition to providing a poor level of service.

Thierer says the universal telephone service provided in America in the early 20th century by the original AT&T should serve as a cautionary tale against governments stepping in to provide universal broadband. He says the government-sanctioned Bell System monopoly provided mediocre telephone service to 93 percent of the U.S. population at best—whereas TV and radio hit 98 percent and 99 percent respectively, even though neither was subsidized or regulated. And what of the Bell System’s cheap prices? “We have no idea if it could have been much cheaper because competition was not allowed to develop,” Thierer says.

To clarify that last point… I’m certainly aware that broadcast TV and radio were regulated in various ways. In fact, I’ve spent a lifetime writing about it. But policymakers did not regulate broadcasting as aggressively as telephony in an attempt to achieve universal service. Indeed, “universal service” was the driving force behind communications monopolization in this country, but it had horrific consequences for consumers as I noted in my 1994 history of how communications competition was destroyed in the U.S. (See:  “Unnatural Monopoly: Critical Moments in the Development of the Bell System Monopoly.”)

But here’s the critical point: We live in a world of trade-offs and there is no free lunch. One doesn’t just mandate broadband for all and then expect there won’t be any costs — both direct and indirect. The direct cost is the cost to taxpayers or ratepayers in form of higher taxes or bills. The indirect costs usually arrive in the form of diminished competition, limited innovation, lackluster options, and the various problems associated with the regulatory capture that will ensue.

We must never forget that the best universal service policy is market competition. When we get the basic framework right — low taxes, property rights, contractual enforcement, anti-fraud standards, etc. — competition takes care of the rest.

For example, last week we learned that the number of wireless phone subscribers in the U.S. is now greater than the nation’s population: 327.6 million wireless subscriptions compared to a total population of 315.5 million people. That’s a penetration rate of nearly 104%. Of course, some of this is due to multiple subscription households. Even so, this is a rather astonishing development, and no one doubts that more Americans of every demographic group today have available to them an unprecedented array of wireless phones and plans. Prepaid plans are currently the hottest growth segment, in fact.

This amazing “universal service” story didn’t happen because of regulation or subsidies. It was vigorous competition and incessant innovation that spurred the spread of better, faster, and cheaper phones and service. We should remember that lesson next time anyone starts calling broadband–or other technological services–an inalienable human right.

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