Why the

A few weeks ago I made the point that two of the most common models for describing the Internet have significant flaws that could lead to poor policy decisions. I’ll focus on the issue of the “distribution model” and its effect on ’Net neutrality in an upcoming column.

For now, I’ll revisit the issue of why the “utility model” of the Internet is flawed — and as a consequence, why we don’t need universal broadband.

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on my previous columns on the topic. Naysayers’ comments basically fell into the following categories:

1. Broadband today is just like phone service was in the 1930s, when telephony was considered a utility on the order of electricity and water.

The argument sounds good, but it’s flawed on a couple of levels. Firstly, the electricity and water networks are managed regionally, not federally.

Secondly (and more importantly), the infrastructure required to benefit from the Internet is significantly more complex than that for the water and utility networks. To use water, all you need is a cup. Electricity? A lamp and light bulb will do. But to access the Internet, you need software, a computer and a cable or DSL modem. Providing broadband without any of these is like providing a car without an engine — it looks pretty, but it’s useless.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the Internet isn’t something you can just “tap into” (like the energy and water grids). Truly leveraging the Internet involves creating and posting content (whether by e-mail, Web site, blog or an application that hasn’t been invented yet). Any policy that aims to provide uniform high-quality access to the Internet would need to include all of the above — and again, simply providing a fat pipe doesn’t help.

2. There’s a digital divide between privileged and underprivileged citizens, and we need federal help to bridge it. I can be as much of a bleeding heart as the next person, but check out this news: The digital divide is narrowing fast. Researchers are finding that groups that have historically been under