Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam closed out a Monday conference call with investors saying that true net neutrality, which promotes an open Internet where all online traffic is treated equally, means customers and companies that use more Internet should pay more.
“We make our money by carrying traffic…I think it is only natural that the heavy users help contribute to the investment to keep the web healthy. That is the most important concept about net neutrality,” McAdam said.
How would McAdam’s plan play out? If you have a really busy month on top of your normal usage — maybe you’re hosting weekend Netflix movie marathons in preparation for the Oscars — you’ll have to pay a bigger Internet bill. If you can’t afford to pay more, you’ll simply have to skip the Netflix binge. But for some low-income families, McAdam’s “ideal” model would have much more serious implications than a movie marathon. A sliding scale based on how much bandwidth a household uses could turn the Internet into an even more stratified class system — with the the 26 million poorer families in the United States who can’t afford to pay for Internet permanently at the bottom.
The U.S. may have better overall access than other countries, with 80 percent of the population having Internet connections, but high cost impedes equal access to information. Even though millions of Americans cannot afford the Internet, reliable Web access has become a basic prerequisite for educational and professional success all over the world. It has also become an invaluable tool for individuals to create community and organize politically. High costs create a digital literacy barrier, which can affect job opportunities, income and overall quality of life.
Re-imagining Internet access as a basic right has been long supported by the Internet’s most prominent innovators, such as Mark Zuckerberg. In 2011, the United Nations unanimously declared Internet a human right. Opponents to the theory, such as Vinton Cerf, a Google executive, say the Internet is a tool and doesn’t meet the high standard of being a right like free speech or the right not to be tortured.
The UN report urged governments to open Internet access by making it more accessible and, of course, affordable. The Internet inexpensively permits the instant exchange of information, the report states. “By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an ‘enabler’ of other human rights, the Internet boosts economic, social and political development,” the report stated.
Other countries are already on that track, opening the Web by making it cheaper and faster. Compared to their peers abroad, Americans already pay more for Web access and prices out those who can’t afford it. Americans also tend to pay a lot for the worst service, according to a recent New America Foundation study on Internet connectivity costs.
Verizon’s suggestion to make users pay more fees, in addition to an already costly Internet system in the U.S., is the opposite of the UN’s vision for open access. Simply put, it further blocks people from accessing basic information. That not only hurts underprivileged individuals, but could damage American competitiveness in the world as other countries broaden their own Internet capabilites.
“Truly high-speed wired Internet access is as basic to innovation, economic growth, social communication, and the country’s competitiveness as electricity was a century ago, but a limited number of Americans have access to it, many can’t afford it, and the country has handed control of it over to Comcast and a few other companies,” said New America Foundation’s telecom policy expert Susan Crawford.
A federal court eliminated the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules last month. Those rules kept telecommunications companies such as Verizon and AT&T from charging websites for faster access. Since the ruling, the future of open Internet access is unclear. There’s been speculation as to whether quality access will be exclusively available to those who can afford it, cutting off the flow of information and ending the Web’s value as a universal educator.