By ROBERT MAIER
A recent article in the New York Times (Dec. 4, 2011, “The New Digital Divide”) about why the US is ranked 12th among developed nations in Internet connectivity underscores the excellent reasons why Davidson’s mayor and town board (along with Mooresville) decided to purchase scandal-ridden Adelphia’s decrepit local communications network several years ago. The U.S. is dominated by just six Internet cable providers— like Time Warner, Comcast, AT&T. These providers are acquiring most remaining smaller systems without any federal oversight. We know what this means—prices will go up and quality of service will go down for those subscribers.
State legislators, including North Carolina’s, influenced by well-funded cable industry lobbyists, have made it easier to do this by outlawing local competition like MI Connection. In North Carolina, it is now illegal for a government entity to own a communications system. That’s like requiring the water system to be owned by a private company beholden only to its stockholders for whom profit is the only motive, and not providing water to homes that aren’t profitable enough.
This means that the Digital Divide will widen, turning us even more into a society of haves and have-nots. High-speed Internet connections will become even more critical in coming years for education, business, personal communications, journalism, healthcare, finance, commerce, government, and even lowly entertainment. Those who can access speeds of up to 150 Mbps will have many more opportunities than those with lowly telephone-company DSL—or nothing at all. It slams shut the door to opportunity for children in households that can’t afford to prop up shareholder profits because they can’t afford the unregulated, exorbitant rates for something that is a cultural necessity on the level of water, telephone, electricity, and roads.
Rural areas will be left out because there’s no immediate profit in building lines to serve small populations. Without government regulation, there is no incentive for cable giants to include less-populated and lower income areas.
A large part of Davidson’s motivation for purchasing the local cable system was to ensure a fair rate structure and access to all citizens. It also wanted to ensure the latest technology. In the hands of Time-Warner, Comcast and the other cable giants, instead of ranking with top 10 countries like Sweden, Japan, and even up and coming Portugal and Russia, our cost to access the fastest technology (150 Mbps) ranks with Istanbul. In the 4 percent of the US where you can get those speeds the cost is 5 times higher than Paris—as just one example.
I have had MI Connection’s high speed Internet, telephone, and TV package for more than a year. It has been 99 percent flawless, and the few problems have been fixed quickly and courteously, as if the employees had a personal stake in customer service (imagine that!). Buying MI Connection was not a mistake. Its economic problems would disappear overnight if more people showed a little more civic responsibility, and used just MI’s telephone and Internet services.
By civic responsibility, I mean that if lower income citizens are served with Internet connections required for the new digital world of health care, education, etc., all of Davidson will benefit. A huge corporation based in Colorado couldn’t care less about Davidson’s potholes or the quality of its police force. High speed Internet must not be the exclusive territory of gated communities and high-end business parks. This country does not need more division. This was the genius behind acquiring a cable system. Global economic problems have made it a difficult beginning, but those who have bought into it have excellent services at a good price, and hopefully more than a little civic pride. By working together, even in the coming digital world, great things will be achieved.
Robert Maier lives on Walnut Street in Davidson.