Friday, October 16, 2009

Is Broadband Internet Access a Legal Right?

Those Europeans are at it again – pioneering the future for the Internet with their whacky ways.

The latest – Finland has become the first country in the world to boldly declare broadband Internet access a legal right. As of July 2010, all telecommunications companies doing business in that country must provide broadband Internet services of at least one-megabit per second or face fines.

2007_06_26__12_52_36Image by freedryk via Flickr

That means all 5.2 million citizens in the northern European nation will have broadband Internet access. Though that won’t be hard for the small country, Finland is one of the most net-friendly places on the planet, with about 95 percent of the population already online.

And that one-megabit per second mandate will grow over time – that’s just to start out and facilitate the transition so that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Finland can expand their high-speed broadband networks to the rural areas that don’t presently have such services.

By 2015, the mandate requiring telecommunications companies to provide broadband access to the Internet will have increased from one-megabit per second up to 100-megabits per second.

Finland’s new law is part of a growing philosophy in Europe where the Internet is considered as vital a part of life as water, food and shelter.

This past June, the highest court in France declared access to the Internet a fundamental human right. This came on the heels of a major campaign by the United Nations (UN) to its member countries, which lays out the new basic essentials of life in a modern society, which include access to the Internet.

Many other studies have been done on our basic needs in this modern world, and if one were to compile a list based on these studies, the new world order requires:

  • Healthy food to fuel our bodies
  • Safe and secure shelter to protect us from Mother Nature’s wrath
  • Clean drinking water to prevent dehydration
  • Clothes which protect against the elements of the natural environment
  • Electricity to power much needed electronics such as lights to see, fridges to store food, stoves to cook that food and heaters to keep us warm
  • Safe and proper waste disposal, to prevent the spread of disease and death
  • Banking or monetary services to be able to purchase these basic needs when they run out
  • A communications system to keep in touch with the outside world

Most industrialized countries around the world have policies in place to promote high-speed broadband (as opposed to lower speed, narrowband dial-up) access to the international network of networks circling the globe, collectively called the “Internet.”

Canada’s government has mandated that the telecommunications providers wire Canada’s north, bringing broadband Internet to the country’s northern regions – that’s part of the reasoning behind the network access fees ISPs charge (a similar fee is also charged by cell phone and digital television providers, for the same reasons). These fees are supposed to be used to pay for the costs of expanding the digital communications networks by the ISPs, and other carriers.

Years ago, the nation’s largest phone company – Bell Canada – complained loudly about this government initiative, claiming they were being singled out by the Canadian government just because they were so big. However, all providers have since picked up the slack, and are also collecting various fees from their subscribers to maintain and expand their digital broadband networks.

Logo of the United States Federal Communicatio...Image via Wikipedia

Ironically, one of the most powerful nations on planet Earth doesn’t have such a plan. The United States of America is the only industrialized nation not to have a formally recognized plan to promote, maintain and expand high-speed broadband Internet access to its citizens, according to a study released this past August by one of the country’s largest organized labor unions, the Communications Workers of America.

However, an American national plan is anticipated in February 2010, when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to submit such a proposal to Congress.

Still, Americans are falling behind the Europeans, as Finland is the first – and only country so far – to legally declare access to broadband Internet a human right. Other European nations are expected to follow Finlands example in the coming years.

Although the Internet is an amazing tool for communications, is it a fundamental human right? Some form of communications should be a fundamental human right. One would have thought that the telephone would win that honor.

Think about it, during an emergency situation, what’s the first thing most of us would do – aside from panic? CALL 9-1-1 (or your local emergency number) using a TELEPHONE.

Most of us have email, some form of instant messaging program, and many even have the ability to place telephone calls over the Internet, using programs like Skype.

But if your house is on fire, are you really going to run to your computer and email the fire department? If you get into a car accident, are you going to tweet for a tow truck on Twitter? If a mugger attempts to rob you as you walk home from a night out with friends, are you going to instant message the police?

The Internet is a great resource for those trying to connect with family and friends during a major traumatic event. It has been used to help coordinate messages of hope, raise funds for victims, even as a way for friends and family to locate loved ones during major catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina in Mexico and the southern U.S., the Asia-Pacific Rim Tsunami, the forest fires off the west coast of North America, even the Red River flooding in Manitoba, Canada and other natural disasters.

But for immediate response with emergency workers, we use the telephone.

Yes, you can do so much more with the Internet than a phone. But playing online games, downloading movies, and poking someone on Facebook aren’t nearly as important as the ability to instantly connect with live-saving resources when they are needed.

Sure, we can conduct important life-changing tasks online, from banking, ordering food, even applying for a new way to earn a living.

But until the police, fire and ambulance services are just a point and click away, the telephone is the communications technology which should be a fundamental human right in the industrialized world.

The Internet is important, but not something our lives really depend upon.

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