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Implications of 'Free' Filtered Internet Access

SOLO-US Op Ed: The Implications of 'Free' Filtered Wireless Internet Access

By Lance Davey
12/3/2008

The Outgoing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin is behind a push from the FCC to offer free wireless internet access to "all Americans". The service would be filtered to block access to pornography and "other material not suitable for children". The plan is to perhaps allow adult users to opt-out of the filtering of content.

This plan would have a disastrous effect on private internet service provision and leave many Americans unable to afford the inevitable rise in cost of unfettered internet service. It would be naive in the extreme to think that because a 'competitor' has entered the market with a free service, private provision would fall in price. Broadband internet access works (and works well) by overselling usage (how much you can download) and bandwidth (how fast you can download). Very few customers actually need fulltime access to the speeds that they can get content delivered, but they are willing and do pay the price to have that access there whenever they want it. It is the bulk of the customer base that, in essence, subsidise the heavy users and lead to reasonably priced, high quality internet access for all. If that doesn't make sense to you then think of it as a gym membership. You pay a flat monthly fee to access the gym and equipment; the gym relies on everyone not trying to be there at the same time all day every day. Some use it more, some use it less, but it IS there whenever they want it. This may seem unfair to those who use it less but pay the same price – but with that system you end up with reasonable rates for all.

So consider what would happen if all those users who (un-coerced) effectively subsidise the cost of internet service provision, found out that they could do all that they wanted, such as checking their email and viewing those insufferably stupid social networking sites, for free; in effect handed to them by the government with one or two caveats and addendums. No, the cost of broadband internet access would not plummet as ISPs desperately lowered prices to try and retain customers who were running to the new free service. After all you cannot compete with free. The ISPs would in fact RAISE prices as the "subsidisers" left; they would have no choice. They would have a niche certainly: faster connection, better service, no filtering of "unsuitable material" or requiring you to register to look at the naughty stuff (naughty stuff being whatever they deem pornographic, whatever is deemed "hate" speech and whatever else may be considered "unsuitable" in the future), no advertising (presumably how the FCC plan to fund their "free" wireless). There would be people who want such a service but boy, would it cost them because providing the service they do to fewer users, means that cost is also distributed amongst fewer users. Those who could no longer afford private internet service would then be stuck with choosing a government-controlled and -censored public internet service (which may or may not allow you to opt out of the censorial part and even then would require you to identify yourself to authorities as desiring to see the naughty bits), or none at all. The particularly cynical and paranoid amongst us may suspect that the FCC is well aware of all of this.

Then again, the price of liberty is eternal paranoia.


ends

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