There is no denying the benefit that broadband brings to all of us. Some would go so far as to say it’s the ‘electricity’ of our day. But is it a right? In other words, should government and service providers be compelled to offer it everywhere, regardless of the cost? It’s a difficult issue to tackle. It raises another important issue – who ultimately is responsible for ensuring universal broadband access – government, service providers, or end users themselves?

This complex issue is highlighted in a recent article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS), in a piece labeled, “Residents Beg for Broadband.” The MJS piece highlights some rural communities in Dane County served by TDS, just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, that currently have no broadband access. Residents of this community are extremely frustrated and are now organized, petitioning the state public service commission to order TDS to provide broadband to them.

TDS says these communities are just too small and isolated to provide broadband services. “I am tremendously sympathetic … but the unfortunate situation is they live in a very isolated pocket. It is the most difficult conversation we have with customers,” TDS spokesman Andrew Petersen tells the MJS. TDS also says the community did not qualify for broadband stimulus funding because of its proximity to urban areas – a claim we have not independently verified.

It’s unfortunate that these communities are not served by a tier 3 rural telco or cooperative, because that would probably nix this broadband access issue in the community’s favor. Unfortunately for them, tier 3 providers can’t be everywhere. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of communities just like them across the U.S. in this same situation.

So ultimately, who is responsible for solving this problem?

  • Is it government? The new national broadband plan with its Connect America Fund may be one attempt to rectify this problem. Truth be told though, the CAF will not dictate where broadband facilities actually get built. So should state PSCs start getting in the business of mandating broadband access in every community? Or maybe there should be a new carrier of last resort responsibility for broadband, in addition to dial tone, as there is now.
  • Is it service providers? Should service providers have an obligation to build broadband facilities everywhere, regardless of whether the business case makes sense? With some limited exception, most service providers are in business of investing capital for a profitable return. Unfortunately that edict sometimes clashes with providing basic broadband access to all.
  • Is it the end user? Should end users simply accept the fact that there are limited resources and universal broadband, while a noble cause, may be unrealistic? Some will argue that life is about choices, and if you choose to live in an area where broadband is not available, it’s your choice. You can either move or band with your neighbors to build your own broadband facilities. For many, that’s a rather harsh, some would argue unfair, assessment.

Like with most important issues, there are no easy answers. There are valid arguments on either side of these three positions. It really depends on perspective. What’s yours?