This House believes the state should provide broadband internet through nationalized companies

In the past two decades the internet has come to be a dominant part of people’s lives. For work, pleasure, staying in touch, and countless other uses, the internet has become an indispensable tool for many individuals. Without it, much of the information-based civilization that has been built up would stop working the way we are accustomed to. As the internet has become more important so too have access to the most cutting-edge systems to provide high speed, security, and data storage become critical. Broadband internet provides the fastest access to the internet, and is now essential to the functioning of the economy both globally and locally.

The increased importance of the internet has spurred a significant debate over the nature of the rights to access it. Is internet access now a fundamental right because it is a critical tool in the expression of other freedoms such as the freedom of expression? As yet there is no consensus on an answer. The United Nations special rapporteur on the freedom of expression has stated “Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all States.”[1] Many countries, including France, Costa Rica, Spain, and Greece have all legally enshrined the right to internet access. Most countries have not yet followed suit, though vigorous debate flourishes in many polities, such as the United States and United Kingdom.[2]

If internet access is a human right, or even recognised simply as being important for everyone to have, then how should it be ensured that everyone has access? Some suggest that governments have a duty to provide service through monopolies run by state companies, and that these services would be more efficient than private provision. Others say it is the place of the private sector to provide these services, and that it is always the private sector, absent state bureaucracy, that provides the superior service, especially if the state were to make provisions to guarantee service to everyone.

This debate seeks to piece out the case for each side by examining the rights to internet, the risks state provision entails, and the relative cost savings or accruals from state internet providers. For the sake of this debate it is worthwhile to limit the scope to the developed world, where the possibility of providing extensive broadband service is a realistic policy.

[1]  La Rue, F., “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression”, Human Rights Council, A/HRC/17/27, 16 May 2011, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/17session/A.HRC.17.27_en.pdf p.22

 

Title 
The information age demands a right to broadband access
Point 

As information technology has come more and more to pervade people’s lives, it has become abundantly clear that a new set of positive rights must be considered. In the forefront of this consideration stands broadband. Broadband allows for far more rapid access to the internet, and thus access to the world of information the internet represents. Today, a citizen of a free society must be able to access the internet if he or she is to be able to fully realise their potential. This is because the ability to access the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and civic and social participation are now contingent upon ready access to the internet. Thus access to the internet has itself become a right of citizens, and their access should be guaranteed by the state. This right has been enshrined by several countries, such as France, Finland, Greece, and Spain, thus leading the way toward a more general recognition of this service as a right in the same way other public services are guaranteed.[1] It is a right derived from the evolution of society in the same fashion that the right to healthcare has grown out of countries’ social and economic development.

[1] Lucchi, N. “Access to Network Services and Protection of Constitutional Rights: Recognizing the Essential Role of Internet Access for the Freedom of Expression”. Cardozo J. of Int’L & Comp. Law, Vol.19, 2011, http://www.cjicl.com/uploads/2/9/5/9/2959791/cjicl_19.3_lucchi_article.pdf

Counterpoint 

Internet access is not a fundamental right. It is a useful enabler of rights. But that is not reason to guarantee it to all, any more than states owed every citizen access to a printing press a few centuries ago. Even were it a right, internet access could be provided far more efficiently and effectively through the private, rather than the public, sector. 

Title 
It would provide an efficient service for everyone
Point 

A single, universal provider of broadband would allow the government to rationalize the management and development of the service. Multiple private service-providers ultimately end up causing three serious problems. The first two are straightforward, that private firms competing in the same area waste money creating multiple distribution channels that are unnecessary for the number of consumers, and that when they opt not to compete they end up dividing up territory into effective utility monopolies. The third problem is especially salient to the state when it is attempting to provide for everyone: many areas are too sparsely populated or economically underdeveloped that private firms are unwilling to invest in them; these areas are entirely dependent on state intervention to allow them to get broadband access. Thus for example, in the United States 19 million people in the United States still have no broadband access.[1] Much like electrical and water utilities, a single provider can create the most efficient outcome for consumers, and when that provider is the state it can guarantee affordable prices and commit to not price-gouging as private firms are wont to do.[2] Broadband should be treated as a utility, and the state has always proven to be the best purveyor of public utilities.

[1] Elgan, M. “Should Wireless Carriers be Nationalized?”. Huffington Post. 10 October 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-elgan/wireless-carriers-nationalized_b_1955633.html

[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Public Utility." Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. 2013 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/482523/public-utility

Counterpoint 

The state is rarely an efficient service provider. Conventionally, it provides a shoddy service when it faces no competition, and when it charges low prices it is usually at the expense of the infrastructure and quality of service. When free of market forces, the state is even more likely to rest on its position of monopoly and provide insufficient service. But even with a state service, prices cannot be guaranteed to be kept low, but rather states can well overcharge and exploit their privileged position.

Title 
Broad-based access to broadband is essential for countries to be competitive and to excel
Point 

Information technology is critical to the success of contemporary economies, with even the simplest business ventures. Uneven or non-existent penetration of broadband is a major drag on economic progress.[1] The private sector has been unable to effectively adapt with a holistic approach to the provision of data space and internet speed. The state providing these services would guarantee a high quality of service, and penetration across the country, linking all citizens to the network. For a country to compete internationally it needs broadband, and the surest way to provide it, since the private sector has resolutely failed to do so, and where it does provide services, it tends to overcharge.[2] As the Western world is left behind by the internet speeds of erstwhile developing states like Singapore, which has almost total penetration of high quality, state-sponsored broadband, it needs to refocus on what can reverse the trend.[3] Broadband is one of the steps toward the solution.

[1] Elgan, M. “Should Wireless Carriers be Nationalized?”. Huffington Post. 10 October 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-elgan/wireless-carriers-nationalized_b_1955633.html

[2] ibid

[3] Kass, D. “FCC Chairman Wants Ultra High Speed Broadband in 100 Million US Households by 2020”. IT Channel Planet. 18 February 2010. http://www.itchannelplanet.com/technology_news/article.php/3865856/FCC-Chairman-Wants-Ultra-High-Speed-Broadband-In-100-Million-US-Households-by-2020.htm

Counterpoint 

Broadband is a necessary evolution of internet technology that firms would be wise to avail of if they wish to remain competitive. But it is this very desirability that makes the provision of broadband a lucrative business in which many firms participate. Business on a large scale is rarely organised in diffuse patterns, but clustered in major population centres. Economic development can be furnished by the private sector investing in broadband where there is a market. Growth will not be slowed just because some farmers in Nebraska have slower internet. Singapore is an aberrant example, as it is so small and its population so dense that it would be impossible to compare its provision of broadband access to most other countries.

Title 
Universal broadband is a necessary prerequisite to developing more efficient and effective power-grids
Point 

Advanced infrastructure technology often relies on the existence of broadband technology universally installed across the grid. Countries like South Korea and Japan have succeeded in expanding their power grids by means of “smart grids”, power-grids that are far more efficient than existing structures in previously leading states like the United States, that make use of the broadband network in the provision of power. The US government has since committed to creating its own new grid, one that would increase efficiency, supply and management, and lower costs of energy provision to its citizens.[1] Such grids depend on the reliable and advanced broadband networks. The incentive for states to employ broadband across their territory is tremendous, beyond mere access to fast internet. This is why private firms will never be sufficient in efficient provision of broadband, because they do not reap all the benefits directly of the smart grid that can arise from its development. The state providing broadband is an essential part of upgrading energy provision for advanced countries in the 21st century.

[1] Kass, D. “FCC Chairman Wants Ultra High Speed Broadband in 100 Million US Households by 2020”. IT Channel Planet. 18 February 2010. http://www.itchannelplanet.com/technology_news/article.php/3865856/FCC-Chairman-Wants-Ultra-High-Speed-Broadband-In-100-Million-US-Households-by-2020.htm

Counterpoint 

States can develop new power-grids without needing to furnish all citizens with broadband in order to avail of the smart grid. The cost of developing these technologies and implementing them across the board are woefully high, and the inefficient nature of government services means they would only be more costly to the taxpayer. A better solution would be to liberalize the energy markets in order to encourage private firms to invest in the development of the smart grid.

Title 
State intervention would crowd out private firms
Point 

The imposition of a powerful state firm dominating the broadband market would serve to reduce the ability of private providers to compete. The greater resources of the state would be able to give it the power to dictate the market, making it less attractive to private investment. Creating a monopolistic provider would be very dangerous considering that this is a sector upon which much of future national development relies.[1] Crowding out private firms will make them less inclined to invest in new technologies, while the state provider is unlikely to fill the gap, as traditionally state utilities rely upon their power of incumbency and size rather than seeking novel services. An example of this is Eircom which, when it was the state utility, provided broadband of a lower quality and at higher price than most private providers. The end result of state dominance and reduction of private competitors is a loss of innovation, a loss of price competition, and an erosion of customer service.

[1] Atkinson, R. “The Role of Competition in a National Broadband Policy”. Journal on Telecommunications and High Technology Law 7. 2009, http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/jtelhtel7&div=4&g_sent=1&collection=journals

Counterpoint 

State firms do not necessarily crowd out private firms. Rather, they can furnish services in areas that private firms consider unprofitable, and can coordinate infrastructural process on a wider area, allowing for gains in economies of scale. Eircom provides an example of this too as its reduction in investment in broadband post privatisation meant that the government had to begin reinvesting in broadband itself.[1] Private firms will still have incentives to develop new technologies because there will still be profits to be made. But absent private firms, innovation will still exist. State investment in innovation and new technology can be very effective, as was the case with the Space Race.

[1] Palcic, D., and Reeves, E., “Privatisation and productivity performance in Ireland”, http://www.forfas.ie/media/productivity_chapter11.pdf P.200

Title 
The state can work more effectively through the private sector
Point 

If the state is worried about provision of broadband in areas too sparsely populated or disadvantaged, they can provide subsidies to private firms to develop the areas that are not profitable without needing to develop full government-operated companies. Just because the state is not providing the service does not mean that there cannot be compulsory to provide access to everywhere, many countries post offices for example are obliged to deliver to every address.[1] Government employees tend to be overpaid and underworked, leading to chronic inefficiencies that would be absent in a private firm, even one backed with government money.

Furthermore, the cost to the state is prohibitively expensive to go it alone, because state contracts have a marked tendency to go over budget, ultimately harming the taxpayers. These overruns are a standard part of government projects, but they can be ruinous to large scale information technology projects. Indeed, one-third of all IT projects end with premature cancellation as the direct result of overruns.[2] The future of countries’ economic prosperity cannot be entrusted to an organization that will stack the odds toward failure. This policy does not make sense when it is an area in which the private sector is willing to make substantial contributions to the cost. The only way to guarantee a decent level of service and an appropriate level of cost is to allow the private sector to take the lead, and to supplement it with incentives to build more and better systems. In the United States encouraging private investment in broadbrand infrastructure has led to a total of $1.2trillion ploughed into broadband access while Europe’s more state investment approach is falling behind.[3]

[1] United States Postal Service, “Postal Facts”, 2012, http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-facts/welcome.htm  Royal Mail Group, “Universal Service Obligation”, http://www.royalmailgroup.com/regulation/how-were-regulated/universal-service-obligation

Counterpoint 

The private sector will never be able to meet the demands governments would make in order to build a working broadband network and the subsequent smart grid because their profit motives cannot internalize the social benefits of the new grids and technology. Unfortunately the private sector will only build the infrastructure in profitable densely populated areas neglecting rural areas. The state must therefore fill the gap, either by subsidizing private firms to provide service to unprofitable areas, or to service them itself. Furthermore, it can provide the service more freely and more fairly in order to guarantee that citizens get the services they deserve and need to succeed in the 21st century.

Title 
It would give undue power to the government over access to the internet
Point 

Monopoly, or near-monopoly, power over broadband is far too great a tool to give to governments. States have a long history of abusing rules to curtail access to information and to limit freedom of speech. Domination of broadband effectively gives the state complete control of what information citizens can or cannot consume online. ISPs function generally under the principle of Net Neutrality, in which they are expected to allow the free transit of information online. If they are the sole gatekeepers of knowledge, people may well be kept from information deemed against the public interest. It is harder for opponents of government regulations to voice their opinions online when they have no viable alternative to the state-controlled network. The internet is a place of almost limitless expression and it has empowered more people to take action to change their societies. That great tool of the people must be protected from any and all threats, and most particularly the state that could so profit from the curtailment of internet freedom.

Counterpoint 

If the state overstepped in its regulation, no doubt private competitors would be able to fill the void. But such an eventuality is rather unlikely given the robustness of civil institutions in free societies and the willingness of people to come out in arms against attacks on their freedoms. The state is not a bogey-man. Rather, it is the best outlet by which to deliver inexpensive, efficient broadband service.

Bibliography 

Atkinson, R. “The Role of Competition in a National Broadband Policy”. Journal on Telecommunications and High Technology Law 7. 2009, http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/jtelhtel7&div=4&g_sent=1&collection=journals

Cleland, S., “Why Europe is falling behind America on Broadband”, The Daily Caller, 12 February 2013, http://dailycaller.com/2013/02/12/why-europe-is-falling-behind-america-on-broadband/

Elgan, M. “Should Wireless Carriers be Nationalized?”. Huffington Post. 10 October 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-elgan/wireless-carriers-nationalized_b_1955633.html

Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Public Utility." Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. 2013 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/482523/public-utility

Hall, K. “Overrun in Big IT Projects Leads to One in Three Failures”. Computer Weekly. 23 May 2012, http://www.computerweekly.com/news/2240150666/Overrun-in-big-IT-projects-leads-to-one-in-three-failures

Kass, D. “FCC Chairman Wants Ultra High Speed Broadband in 100 Million US Households by 2020”. IT Channel Planet. 18 February 2010. http://www.itchannelplanet.com/technology_news/article.php/3865856/FCC-Chairman-Wants-Ultra-High-Speed-Broadband-In-100-Million-US-Households-by-2020.htm

Kelly, T., et al., “What role should governments play in broadband development?” World Bank, 11 September 2009, http://www.oecd.org/ict/4d/43631862.pdf

Lucchi, N. “Access to Network Services and Protection of Constitutional Rights: Recognizing the Essential Role of Internet Access for the Freedom of Expression”. Cardozo J. of Int’L & Comp. Law, Vol.19, 2011, http://www.cjicl.com/uploads/2/9/5/9/2959791/cjicl_19.3_lucchi_article.pdf

Palcic, D., and Reeves, E., “Privatisation and productivity performance in Ireland”, http://www.forfas.ie/media/productivity_chapter11.pdf

Royal Mail Group, “Universal Service Obligation”, http://www.royalmailgroup.com/regulation/how-were-regulated/universal-service-obligation

United States Postal Service, “Postal Facts”, 2012, http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-facts/welcome.htm

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