While some may have definite opinions on the question posed in this title, I find myself internally confused and awash in contradictory feelings. This isn't a Right/Left issue (although parts of it are) and the arguments are complicated even if your ideology is already slanted in one direction.
Should the Internet be a public utility?
Is Internet access important enough to be regulated and if so, how?
Is the Internet similar to public roads, electricity or water?
It's not hard to draw parallels with roads, electricity and water. Like roads and electricity, the Internet is an interconnected grid and failures in one part can cause congestion or even inaccessibility in other parts.
Like all three of those, the Internet has bandwidth limitations. It has repair and maintenance costs.
Both businesses and individuals use the Internet just as they use roads, electricity and water. There are frivolous uses and very serious uses, there are trivial, necessary, and outrageous uses. There is waste and there is critical public service. There are public safety issues in all of these.
Of course, the Internet has its own unique aspects also.
Is Internet access important?
This is probably the only part where I do have a definite opinion: Yes, I believe that Internet access is as important as roads, as electricity, as water.
Almost all businesses would agree with that. Business needs access to its customers and wants its customers to have access to the business. Some businesses would not even exist without the Internet.
The importance to individuals varies. Some see it as completely unnecessary, a frill they can live without. For others, it is just a source of entertainment, hardly on a par with water, electricity or roads.
Those people might say that that the Internet is not essential. They might agree that it is important to business and perhaps important to some individuals, but they'd insist that it cannot be seen as essential to modern life.
I would counter that in several ways. First, what is "essential"? It was not that long ago when many of us had private wells and private sewage systems (cesspools, septic tanks) and some still do. You don't "need" public water. You can fetch water from a stream or a lake or collect it in rain barrels or dig a well. Water is essential to life, but public delivery of it certainly is not.
Your great grandparents might well have lived without any electricity and, if they did not, their parents almost certainly did. You can also generate your own electricity and advances in solar power and other technologies may make that possible for all of us. Electric utilities are not essential.
Roads are certainly essential to many for getting to work, for access to medical care, for delivery or access to food and other goods and, of course, for recreational use. The Internet strongly parallels those uses, though of course for smaller numbers of people.
Those numbers are growing, however. There is public benefit from encouraging telecommuters; reducing automobile commuters saves road maintenance, reduces pollution and saves lives. The same is true for shopping, of course.
Medical use of the Internet is growing and again there are public benefits to consider. At home care is desirable when possible and Internet monitoring of medical devices is beginning to make that more possible than it has been in the past.
There are also public benefits for disease control and other public safety issues. We have an Emergency Alert System now and are testing expanding it to give more information through the Internet.
For all these reasons, I see Internet access as a "public" matter. A smoothly functioning Internet highway is important to many of us today, will become more important to many more soon, and has obvious benefits to business and the public sector.
Should the Internet be regulated as a utility?
But does that mean that it needs regulation as a utility?
This is where things get murkier. Just like roads, electricity and water, the Internet has limits on its ability to deliver information. Historically, every packet of information that traveled through the Internet had equal priority (with some technical exceptions for "out of band" control packets). That's the "net neutrality" that you may have seen argued about.
Why should there be any argument? It's because some Internet data is more "urgent" than others. It may not be particularly important to me if a web page loads a little slowly today because of Internet congestion, but if I am watching a Netflix streaming movie or using a VOIP (voice over IP; telephone routed through the Internet) telephone connection, slow packets are very annoying.
This is where "QOS" (Quality of Service) metering can be put into play. A router can suck down a big gulp of Internet data packets and decide to push through the movies and VOIP packets first, giving them priority over other packets.
That doesn't sound like a horrible thing to do, does it? You could even say that it could sometimes be a critical need: a VOIP call for an ambulance shouldn't be garbled by delayed packets. However, this packet inequality can be extended to punish competition: the FCC investigated Comcast because they suspected that Comcast was delaying competitors (Skype, Vonage) VOIP packets in favor of their own VOIP service.
This is the heart of the net neutrality arguments. Should the government regulate this area of Internet use? Free market proponents will say that if Comcast dampens Skype and others, consumers will simply switch to Verizon or elsewhere. However, many people have no choice: there may be only one high speed ISP (Internet Service Provider) available in their area and if there are two, what is to prevent both of them from delaying Skype packets in favor of their own?
Remember, dial-up is not an option for movies or VOIP!
However, interference isn't limited to private enterprise. Governments have their own reasons for dabbling in Internet traffic. Free speech is a definite concern when governments have total control over Internet data flow. We see that in the Chinese Internet firewall and we've seen it in America and other countries. Internet censorship has become an important ACLU issue and the United Nations says that Internet access is a basic human right because of free speech and censorship concerns.
These are complicated issues. What about pornography, hate groups, protection of children? What about possible threats to national security like Wikileaks? There is plenty to argue about and no lack of emotion at all.
If the Internet does come to be seen as a necessity, concerns about both your activities and your means of access may become something where government sees a public interest. I warned of that back in 2003 when I wrote about Internet access not being a right and possible government interference because of perceived "safety" aspects.
If it should be regulated, how can we fairly do that?
How much involvement should government have? If we see this as important and even critical in some respects, should private enterprise be the provider and under what restrictions should they operate?
For example, with roads and other public infrastructure, governments may require that developers bear the cost of building the roads or assess development impact fees to cover the costs of bringing utilities to the new homeowners or businesses. Should Internet access be a part of that? If there are private ISP's in the area (for example, Verizon and Comcast) should both services be brought in or should the infrastructure be entirely agnostic?
Government or Private ISP's?
Would it ever make more sense for a town or city to take over the Internet "utility"? My town has a community owned gas and electric facility in addition to its water utility. If that idea makes sense, why wouldn't a community owned ISP make just as much sense?
I think that the idea does have merit. Our electric utility is part of the national grid and of course a community ISP would be part of the Internet as a whole. There are advantages and disadvantages, of course - I don't have strong opinions on this, although I do think that a community owned ISP is an interesting idea.
There are people on both sides of that issue. I found a page with interesting comments on both sides that you might want to read.
I can't come down firmly on either side right now. I do think that the decision might become easier as the Internet becomes more of a necessity of modern life. It could make sense to either remove the profit motive entirely (as we did with private roads) or to regulate it more strongly to ensure fair fees and access as we do now with other utilities and even non-utilities like telephones and banks. My State requires banks to offer a no-fee checking account to seniors and children under 18 and has other programs for utilities and telephones, for example. I can easily imagine extending these to Internet access with similar justification.
None of it is absolute, however. There are good arguments in favor of keeping ISP's in the private sector. Perhaps the best answer is something in between, but that loops us back to the regulatory arguments again.
As I said in the beginning, the only thing I am certain of is that Internet access is important and is becoming more so every day.
I hope that I've given you some things to think about if you haven't yet examined these issues. I'd love to hear your thoughts, pro or con and of course I thank you for reading.