Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The digital divide redux: Broadband, net neutrality, and the Comcast-Time Warner merger

By Stephen Menendian

Hamilton County, Ohio Opportunity Map

A few months ago, Comcast announced a $45 billion deal to purchase Time Warner . Although much of the initial commentary focused on the potential effect this proposed merger would have in the cable television market (since Comcast and Time Warner are the first-and second- largest cable providers in the US), the effects in the broadband market are far more important.  Research at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society suggests that broadband is an increasingly critical element of social, economic and civic life.

In its 2010 “National Broadband Plan” report , the FCC describes Broadband as “the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century.”  Just as the interstate highway system transformed residential life, facilitated the growth of the suburbs, and connected families to the broader economy of a region, broadband is a structural conduit for opportunity and upward mobility and in America today.  Unfortunately, like the interstate highway system and the residential patterns it engendered, broadband access and affordability may yet become a new form of segregation in America.  A research paper co-authored by Haas Institute researcher Samir Gambhir notes the inequality of broadband access, affordability and quality experienced by low-income neighborhoods, rural households, and communities of color in particular.

The mission of the Haas Institute at UC Berkeley is to identify and eliminate the barriers to an inclusive, just and sustainable society. We seek to understand the structure of opportunity in order to promote interventions that improve individual and group life chances, especially for marginalized populations. One of our leading initiatives is refining a methodology co-developed by Director john powell for measuring opportunity known as Opportunity Scoring. Compiling a series of indicators that correlate to projected life chances, we are able to map geographic areas (such as census tracts) by index quintile – defined as very low, low, medium, high, and high opportunity – based upon each census area’s value in the index.  This methodology enjoys a range of applications, from siting low-income housing to targeting private investment.

While most of the indicators used by Opportunity Scoring can be organized into prescribed opportunity domains, such as education, employment, health and safety, some important channels of opportunity are not adequately captured by any general category.  Broadband access may be one such indicator. The recently launched Rural Opportunity Index (ROI), a new interactive mapping platform developed by the Center for Regional Change at UC Davis in partnership with Rabobank, illustrates this challenge. In the ROI, high-speed internet access is subsumed under the “transportation/mobility” category.

Broadband touches almost every facet of modern life from education to employment to entertainment.  Broadband can affect one’s ability to learn about and apply for jobs, research homework assignments, access medical records, pay bills, participate in local government, and much more.   It is a platform for innovation and expression.  It is difficult to imagine opening a business or getting an education without it.

Consider the ways in which broadband is becoming a new platform for learning.  Millions of people worldwide take courses online or using free or low-cost instructional videos (the most famous being the Khan Academy), while Universities are also adapting to this technology with platforms such as Coursera . Online education, supplemented by instructor feedback, video-conference, and technologies such as Google hangout or Skype, are making these platforms increasingly attractive and viable, even for people in remote areas. Libraries are increasingly permitting e-reader borrowing , where you can download books to your tablet computer over the internet without having to drive to the local library.

Similar developments have emerged in work life. Teams of employees can work remotely – in different time zones even – and yet code, plan, organize, and communicate through the same technologies. Nearly 38 percent of employers allow some of their workers to telecommute on a regular basis (up from 23 percent in 2008). According to some studies , telecommuting increased productivity gains and improves work/life balance while also unclogging roads during rush hour. As housing costs drive some employees out of thriving economic centers, and as employers struggle to find housing for their employees, telecommuting is likely to be one solution, at least in the short-term.

Telemedicine ” is another development reliant on broadband access. Instead of driving to your local doctor, you can take a house call from home, as your doctor can check in on you via Skype or Facetime. For remote patients or follow-up check-ups, telemedicine can save time and money.  While many experts and patients remain skeptical, the limited use of telemedicine may be a partial solution to the growing shortage of physicians in rural areas.

Beyond the ways in which broadband access may expand educational and economic opportunities, broadband access is also a conduit of cultural content.  Critical online content-delivery platforms like YouTube (with its bountiful supply of amusing videos and TED talks), Netflix, the movie-streaming powerhouse, and cable television shows are all accessible from remote areas largely through broadband.

Broadband access is more than just a conduit of opportunity, it is a channel that structures all of the other opportunity domains, from education to employment. Access to this channel will only grow in importance as new and innovative services emerge based upon a recognition of broadband’s potential for increasing quality of life while saving time, money and reducing greenhouse gases. Broadband access is well on its way to becoming as essential to modern life as basic services such as electricity and clean water. As such, it should be treated as a public utility, as one of the proposals by the FCC in the so-called “net neutrality” debate would do.

Unfortunately, both access to broadband and broadband affordability remains a barrier to opportunity for many American families. Compared to our international peers, Americans pay more for broadband and receive inferior service.  The FCC attributes this fact to the lack of competition in local broadband markets. It’s difficult to imagine how the Comcast-Time Warner merger could improve this situation.

The Comcast-Time Warner merger would give Comcast control over 40 percent of the country’s internet service in 19 of the country’s top 20 cable markets .  Imagine if one corporation privately controlled 40% of the most important roads, streets, highways and bridges in those same markets.  The issue isn’t just access; its affordability and quality (such as internet speed) for low-income families and many marginalized communities. If the Comcast-Time Warner merger reduces competition and increase the price of broadband access, the harms to upward mobility, economic opportunity and our nation would be far reaching.

Hamilton County, Ohio Opportunity Map