Broadband and human rights

25/01/2010 Inderscience

Highspeed, or broadband, access to the web, email and other digital resources is rapidly becoming essential to the lives and livelihood of many people, companies, and organisations. Indeed, in some quarters broadband access is being touted as a human right.

According to Erik Bohlin and Orada Teppayayon of Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden, broadband availability is priority policy of governments around the world and within the European Union several initiatives are now in place to ensure that broadband access becomes a universal service. The research team has now reviewed broadband access across Europe and points out that are many factors yet to be considered in detail before broadband internet access can become a truly universal service.

Broadband penetration is increasing year on year, with Switzerland being the first country to include broadband connection as part of its USO, universal service obligation, since 1 January 2008, albeit at modest speeds. In the USA, the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service has urged the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, to consider including broadband as part of universal service. Moreover, many countries within OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, including Australia, New Zealand, Korea, Turkey, Czech Republic, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, the USA, and many others have focused on broadband support programs for rural and disadvantaged areas for several years.

"Broadband connectivity is of strategic importance to all countries because of its ability to accelerate the contribution to economic growth in all sectors, enhance social and cultural development, and facilitate innovation," the researchers say.

The researchers found no evidence to prove that market-driven policy can serve an entire country efficiently and suggest that "some kind of government intervention will be required" to ensure universal broadband for everyone. One minimal requirement will be to redraft the technical requirements in the USO so that it is not limited to discussing specific technologies, such as voice modem speeds, that were established before current broadband parlance had become well established. If this issue is not addressed, then some users, particularly those in rural or remote locations may gain access to an inferior form of broadband that is no better than the dialup to which many users were accustomed a decade ago. The term "functional internet" as described in the USO cannot be relegated to a specific data rate, but the term should be constructed as part of a relative user assessment, taking into account the current uses, services and needs with internet.

Perhaps more pressing is the need to address the requirements of groups such as the elderly, disabled and others with special social needs, who may not necessarily be as technologically literate as other groups.

"Broadening the scope of universal service has many different contexts to be considered, and balancing between contexts must be done carefully since the primary objective of USO, while a social issue, is certainly dynamic and touches upon other issues, mainly of economics," the researchers conclude. "However, observations can be made that with the advanced pace of technology development, broadband in the future will have the same status as today's basic voice telephony at fixed locations, which is obsolete and no one wants to use it."

Full bibliographic information

"Broadband universal service: A future path for Europe?" in Int. J. Management and Network Economics, 2009, 1, 275-298