An Internet Speed Limit?

OPB | March 27, 2008 midnight | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 8:40 p.m.

Should internet providers be allowed to limit your usage, or is fast and unimpeded connectivity an inalienable right? Is the internet a public utility?

Last October, the Associated Press revealed that Comcast — Oregon’s number one broadband internet provider — was interfering with certain types of web traffic. It was the first time an internet provider was caught delaying or blocking access to a specific website. At first, Comcast denied the report, but later admitted to “managing” their network during times of heavy congestion.

According to the AP report, if subscribers were sharing too many large files with other subscribers, Comcast would delay or block some of the file transactions. Comcast has since denied blocking the transfers but openly admits to using delays for the sake of users who aren’t routinely transferring large files. Comcast believes they are taking reasonable steps to ensure a smooth web experience for the vast majority of their subscribers.

It appears, however, that the FCC doesn’t quite agree. Last month, in a speech given to Harvard Law School, Chairman Kevin Martin gave the strongest indication yet (MP3, courtesy of Arstechnica) that the cable giant may be punished for their role in the controversy. Martin has called Comcast’s behavior “troubling,” and said that the incident will “trigger heightened scrutiny by the Commission in really calling into question some of the assertions of ‘reasonableness’ in terms of network management practices.”

In Portland, those fed up with Comcast’s network practices have proposed a $500 million municipal internet network. City officials claim Comcast — Portland’s primary broadband provider — is charging too much and offering speeds too slow to compete on a national and global level. According to city studies, Portland residents pay the same monthly fees for half the internet speed as the national average. (Comcast, not surprisingly, disagrees, and points to a different study (pdf).) David Olson, the cable director of Portland, believes that the only way to bring fast, affordable internet access to all residents is to essentially make broadband internet a public utility.

But what would internet as “public utility” mean — philosophically, and in practice? When you sign on for internet service do you take it as a given that your provider has the right to limit your usage? (And have you actually noticed — when downloading movies or other large files — a drop in speed?) Or do you look at fast and free and unimpeded connectivity as an inalienable right?

Photo credit: Roland / Flickr / Creative Commons

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