By Tom Still
We live in a society that values its historic constitutional rights and which sometimes aspires to create new rights, justified or otherwise. Witness the federal debate over health care reform, which basically comes down to whether Americans accept the existence of a “right,” or entitlement, to health care.
The next public policy debate in Wisconsin will explore another potential “right” – the right to broadband coverage.
Responding to a petition made last summer, the state Public Service Commission has agreed to look into a request by residents of the Dane County town of Berry to compel a private carrier to offer high-speed Internet coverage. It is a case that could have statewide implications for people living in rural areas, telecommunications providers and state government itself.
The town of Berry is a rural community of about 1,125 people northwest of Madison, which is one of the most intensely “wired” cities in Wisconsin, if not the nation. Many residents in Berry have coveted high-speed Internet service for years, but a combination of the town’s rolling topography and the costs of installing the cable needed to bring broadband to a thinly populated area have led the town’s local carrier, TDS Telecom, to say no.
The company has offered dial-up internet access, but that’s much slower than broadband and it can’t handle transmission of digital photos and other graphics. The only other options for Berry residents are satellite service or a cell-phone connection.
In a complaint filed in June 2010, residents of Berry claimed state regulations obligate TDS to provide “reasonably adequate service and facilities,” which in their view includes broadband coverage. They want the PSC to order TDS Telecom to provide the service, for which the residents would pay once it’s available. The complaint says the lack of high-speed Internet affects virtually every aspect of daily life in Berry, from the ability of people to work from home to their children’s education to property values to access to emergency services.
Not providing the service “has a profound adverse impact on the quality of life, economic development and individual efficiency and productivity in the town of Berry,” the 50-page complaint noted.
Executives at TDS Telecom say they’re sympathetic – they understand the power and value of high-speed Internet connections in today’s world – but add there are some places too costly to serve. The company offers broadband coverage to 94 percent of its customers nationwide, including places as remote as the floor of the Grand Canyon and an island off the western coast of Michigan. In Wisconsin, by way of comparison, about 80 percent of the population has access to some sort of broadband coverage through cable television or telephone providers.
Broadband is fast becoming an essential communications tool for families, businesses, schools, hospitals and virtually any other institution in America. In fact, during his State of the Union speech, President Obama called for connecting 90 percent of all Americans to the Internet within a decade.
But is broadband a “right” that deserves government sanction? That’s the question the three-member PSC may ultimately need to resolve.
The town of Berry is rural but also somewhat exurban, a home to farmers as well as professionals who are likely to work in nearby Madison. Some moved to Berry in recent years because they liked its rural character – a choice that presumably came with the knowledge there would be tradeoffs between lifestyle and convenience.
The flip side of the argument is that the definition of “reasonably adequate” service appears to have changed, seemingly overnight, with the Internet. But state rules governing telecom companies have yet to keep pace with the digital revolution and don’t reflect that change. By and large, Wisconsin telephone companies are still regulated by costly rules that apply primarily to land lines, which are rapidly disappearing from use.
Proposals to modernize Wisconsin’s telecom laws would help relieve carriers of those burdens – and clear the way for more investment in broadband, wireless and other technologies. As the PSC reviews the town of Berry case, it should consider the very real possibility that updating state law could transform a debate over “rights” to a discussion about greater digital opportunity for all.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.