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Is Internet Connection a Public Utility?

If you had just enough electricity to either heat your house during winter or power your PC and give you an Internet connection, what would you chose?

In a recent survey, a group of Americans were asked this question and 63% of them chose the Internet connection over staying warm. In another case, a man dug up his neighbor’s lawn to pass a fiber cable to his house and when the neighbor sued him for damaging his well-manicured lawn, the defendant said that Internet was a utility service and therefore had right of way, the courts however thought otherwise and asked the defendant to pay for the damage done. Some ISPs in Kenya have faced difficulties when laying fiber to the building as landlords demand monthly fees for hosting the ISPs cables in the buildings, ISPs have been adamant in paying this monthly ‘rent’ because they argue that companies like Kenya power or the water distributors do not pay a similar consideration to the landlords to deliver their services to the tenants. The ISPs want the landlords to treat their Internet cables as utility cables and not charge for their routing in the buildings.

The question that arises is if Internet connectivity can be considered a public utility like water and electricity. A public utility can be defined as “a business that furnishes an everyday necessity to the public at large.”   electricity and water are all considered public utilities. In strictly legal terms, there is also a regulatory component in the public utility definition, but here I am concerned with the “everyday necessity” portion. In a utility service like electricity, I want to flip a switch and expect electricity and consume it in quantities that will satisfy my need but at the same time leave enough available to satisfy other people’s (the public) needs too.

I believe the answer to the question on if the Internet is a public utility depends on many factors. The first is geography. In as much as Africa has made great strides in as far as Internet penetration is concerned, we are still very far compared to our European or Japanese counterparts when it comes to not just availability of the Internet but its use also, its one thing to have internet available and another to use it. Statistics show that Africa contributes just about 2% of total Internet traffic and less than 0.1% of the content. Africa is still fighting hunger and disease and lack of clean water, to try classify the Internet as a utility might seem insensitive and counter productive. or is it?

In the rest of the developed world, penetration in some countries is close to 100% (with Norway at 97% and Monaco at 100.6%) compared to Africa’s Highest penetration rate of 51% in Morocco and lowest in South Sudan at 0%. It might seem counter intuitive to classify Internet as a utility in South Sudan for example. However, if this is done, it might actually spur its penetration levels.
The reasons for declaring it as a utility are different for developed and developing countries. Whereas the developed country population is already hooked to the Internet and use it for their daily lives, In developing countries it’s still a luxury and not many can afford it. However, more and more people from developing countries are spending a bigger chunk of their incomes to gain connectivity.

Declaring The Internet as a utility in a developed country will be mostly to spur usage while in a developing country doing so will only spur penetration. The problem however that will arise in both developed and developing countries is that all public utilities must be closely regulated. When the FCC in the US attempted to declare the Internet as a public utility in 2010, it faced a lot of opposition because of the raft of regulatory measures it had put in place. At stake is how far the FCC could go in dictating the way Internet providers manage traffic on their multibillion-dollar networks. The FCC said that its intentions were misunderstood and all it wanted was to guarantee net neutrality. The issue of net neutrality arises from the fact that some ISPs were giving higher preference to traffic from their own services or friendly partners and less priority to traffic from rival networks, eg Comcast was giving video traffic from its sister companies higher priority than traffic of a similar nature from say Netflix or YouTube. Again, the issue of if Comcast is justified in doing this is a discussion for another day.

So the answer to if the internet can be classified as a public utility depends on so many factors. My opinion is this: for the sake of increasing penetration levels, it should be classified as a utility but should be devoid of the close regulation imposed on other utilities such as water and electricity. This is because unlike water and electricity which lack distinct differentiators from one supplier to another (clean water is clean water, 240 volts AC is 240 volts AC), the Internet has unlimited ways in which value addition and differentiation can be done. a regulatory framework to manage this value addition can be cumbersome and self-defeating and market forces should be let to determine which ISP wins the market.

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