For many consumers in rural America, the lack of available broadband Internet access has to be frustrating. In some parts of the world, though, consumers actually have a right to broadband, or Internet access in general.

The United Nations declared in 2011 that broadband Internet access is a human right. In Finland, Greece, Estonia, and other countries, it’s a civil right: the difference is that governments grant civil rights, but can only protect human rights, those granted to us by nature or our creator, depending on your beliefs. Not that those laws and declarations really matter in America: European laws have no power here, and U.N. resolutions are really nothing more than suggestions.

Vint Cerf, considered the father of the Internet, wrote, “Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.” In his view, Internet access merely bolsters First Amendment rights, as we can use Twitter to speak freely, create White House petitions for redress of grievances, and peacefully assemble in online chat rooms. But none of those abilities make access itself a basic right.

What if…

What does it actually mean if Internet access is a right? Does it mean that the government is prohibited from restricting access? That’s something many in this country might support. We’d probably be upset if our government blocked access to media like radio, T.V., and newspapers. And it was troubling, as Cerf noted, when Egypt blocked Internet access completely during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011 in an attempt to prevent information from coming in or out.

Does it mean that the government can force ISPs to provide a certain level of speed to all customers, regardless of cost? That’s the proposal from British government official George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Second Lord of the Treasury. If he gets his way, consumers would have a legal right to demand at least 5 mbps capable service, and later, 100 Mbps. Consumers would still have to pay for it, but providers would be required to make it available.

Or does it mean that the government actually has to pay for or provide that access? Actually, depending on how you look at it, we may already be at that point. The U.S. government is already spending money to expand broadband access to rural portions of the country. Calling this expanded offering the granting of a “right” may be wrong, but before long, our government will likely be providing broadband Internet access to some consumers at reduced rates, or for free.

We Hope You Like Acronyms

The next time you open your phone bill, look for the “Universal Connectivity Fee,” (UCF) charge. That fee is part of the Universal Service Fund (USF) program that’s been around since the dawn of the FCC in 1934. The purpose of the USF is to help make sure that low-income Americans and those in rural areas have the same access to phone service as wealthy urbanites. Technically, long-distance phone carriers pay that charge to local phone providers, a process referred to as intercarrier compensation (ICC), but they typically pass it on to consumers.

The Lifeline program provides service to low-income consumers, and in 2005, it expanded to offer low-cost wireless access in addition to landline service. Another program, the Connect America Fund, subsidized the cost of connecting rural Americans to the phone grid so that their rates would be similar to those living in cities. In past decades, the expense of stringing phone lines meant that service was slow to reach rural areas, just as the cost of laying fiber means broadband is slow to reach rural areas today. Money from the UCF pays for these two programs, along with the E-Rate program and the Rural Health Care Support program.

Expanding the USF

Nearly 20 years ago, congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This law expanded the concept of universal service to include Internet access, so in principle at least, the government has been willing to pay for or subsidize Internet access for some time now. And in 2009, the FCC announced its National Broadband Plan to “modernize and refocus USF and ICC to make affordable broadband available to all Americans… with voice ultimately one of many applications running over fixed and mobile broadband networks.”

Part of that plan is already in motion. The FCC’s Connect America Fund, paid for through the USF, is spending $100 million to figure out how to improve rural broadband access. However, taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the whole bill, as additional funding will come from “incentive-based, market driven policies” to help extend 3G and 4G wireless networks into currently unserved or underserved areas.

Get Your Money’s Worth

As you’re already paying to help expand America’s access to broadband, why don’t you expand it into your own home? Maybe that’s your right, and maybe it’s your privilege, but a faster connection will definitely be your pleasure.

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