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The right to high-speed Internet

The majority of Americans have little choice when it comes to their Internet service. While there are some areas where there is a rivalry between providers (such as Comcast, AT&T, and a small local cable company), most areas suffer from a lack of competitive pressure — a lack that results in slow speeds and higher prices.

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These slow speeds have been the focus of a recent FCC decision. For companies to market their services as broadband or high-speed Internet, they must provide a download speed of 25 megabits per second (mbps) and upload speeds of 3 mbps. This is a major increase from the previous download speed requirements of 4 mbps and a welcome increase to the previous upload speed requirements of 1 mbps.

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Why is such an increase important?

Compared to many countries, the United States has slow Internet service. Ranking 24th in the world in terms of speed, the average consumer receives an average of 11.6 mbps when downloading items (such as word documents or video files) from the Internet. Uploading speeds remain dismal, even as demand skyrockets due to the burst in popularity of sharing photos on social-media sites (such as Facebook), backing up files to the cloud, online gaming, and more. And as the demand for access to high speed Internet increases, it is possible that there are big changes on the horizon.

Why?

It all goes back to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Passed by Congress, this Act says the FCC "shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability [read: broadband] to all Americans." This means that the FCC needs to feel that high-speed Internet is spreading at a realistic rate around the country. If Internet companies are not providing adequate speeds, then the FCC will encourage the creation and expansion of new companies — all to create that competitive pressure.

In fact, a lot of communities have already taken matters into their own hands. While most urban areas already see Internet speeds at 25mbps (or higher), many Internet companies have been slow to expand their faster services into rural areas. With no compelling business incentive to bring higher speeds to smaller communities, the biggest Internet companies appear to be ignoring these areas of the country – or offering them only them slower connections (such as DSL or cable).

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For the 51 million Americans who live in the areas without access to high-speed Internet, this is a major problem. For those choosing to reside in rural communities, broadband Internet is imperative to their personal and business lives. From personal needs (such as video chatting with family or online shopping) to business needs (such as maintaining a business website or remotely connecting to an office), broadband Internet allows these communities to stay relevant in the modern world. It also allows them to receive the help they need, from contacting the local police station to receiving remote technology support.

In a fight against this Internet injustice, more than 450 communities have created publicly-owned high-speed fiber-optic networks. Known as municipal broadband, these providers offer Internet services to their areas which are roughly 50 to 100 times faster than the offered cable or DSL connections. In short, municipal broadband allows those in rural areas to have high-speed access similar to that offered to residents of urban areas. Which means the quality of their technological lives do not suffer due to their addresses.

As you can imagine, these municipal broadband providers are not popular with the big Internet companies. To challenge their success, the large Internet companies have successfully lobbied for laws in different states that prevent the spread of these local companies to other areas, and that imposes significant financial and pricing constraints on communities searching to create their own municipal broadband networks. These laws make it extremely difficult for more communities to provide their residents with the high-speed Internet they are seeking.

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Luckily, due to the FCC's task of making sure that "advanced telecommunications capabilities" are made available to all Americans on a timely basis, these laws are currently being challenged. The FCC recently ruled that they have the authority to override state laws restricting the expansion of municipal broadband networks. This ruling is directly related to cases in Tennessee and North Carolina, where the laws were preventing municipal broadband companies from expanding outside their utility area. While the ruling was only directly related to those two states, it is believed that it will soon have an effect on the 19 other states with similar laws.

While this ruling has few supporters among the large Internet companies, it is a huge step forward in providing the competitive pressure that will result in providing all Americans with high-speed Internet access. While the fight between the large Internet companies, the FCC, and the smaller municipal broadband companies is far from over, it is creating a healthy dialogue about the laws governing the Internet, the companies that are providing it, and the rights of the consumer. These dialogues have the opportunity to impact the future of the network that is continuously changing the way that we live.

To that end, we call on the FCC and state legislators to challenge these laws on a more frequent basis and accelerate the competition among Internet providers. The reality is that if the U.S. wants to stay on the cutting edge of technology and continue to lead global markets in the technological revolution, we cannot allow large corporate ISPs to put restrictions on the type and quality of Internet connection speeds. The government should enact legislation immediately to require ISPs to provide the highest possible speeds to the largest group of people and let whoever can provide the best service win. If that's a large ISP or a municipal ISP it shouldn't matter. Fast, stable and affordable internet is something that everyone should have access to regardless of where they live.

Commentary by Seth Bailey, chief strategy officer of tech-support firm iTOK. He has held VP positions in IT and services companies including DirectPointe and National Services Group.

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