By: Charleston City Councilmen Rodney Williams –
Earlier this year the Journal of Medical Internet Research published a study with encouraging findings regarding the use of mobile broadband technology for distributing health information to underserved communities. The researchers polled a sample of more than 300 African-Americans, primarily composed of single mothers, more than half of whom had no more than a high school education. Researchers asked about Internet habits, and about whether survey participants wished to use mobile Internet services to get health information for themselves and their children.
The results were encouraging: 87 percent of respondents indicated interest in receiving health information via their smart phones. The study concluded, “mobile technology and social networks may be an underutilized method of providing health information to underserved minority populations.”
Medical researchers are generally unconcerned with federal telecommunications policy, but in this case they ought to be: While doctors throughout the country have been trying to gauge how best to disseminate medical information to minority populations using mobile technologies, the federal government has been considering just how much regulation to impose on mobile broadband operators. The Federal Communications Commission – at the president’s urging – seems headed toward something known as “Title II reclassification,” in which broadband services will be treated like public utilities, with rules from the 1930s stretching to try to encompass modern technologies.
One could debate the merits of public utility style regulatory treatment of a high tech information service. But just as important are the unintended consequences that could come from such regulatory treatment. In addition to the potential loss of investment in Internet infrastructure and the potential decrease in innovation as would-be entrepreneurs take their mental energies elsewhere — there could be a very real cost to taxpayers in the form of new state and local taxes and fees.
A recent study by the independent Progressive Policy Institute found that, in South Carolina, everyone who has Internet at home could face an extra $107 in state and local fees and taxes each year. For each mobile service, the addition would be $114 a year. For your average African-American single mother – the subject of the medical survey – who might have one wireline connection and one wireless connection, that’s an extra $221 per year year, or over $18 a month.
Eighteen bucks a month might not seem like a lot to regulators in Washington, but to struggling inner-city populations, that’s money that’s not being spent on food for the children, or on school supplies, or books and other educational materials. It’s $18 on top of the myriad fees that have already been confiscated by state, local, and federal organizations that purport to help individuals.
An extra couple hundred dollars a year is simply out of range of many low income individuals — moving the Internet from a necessity to a luxury. The authors of the medical study surely didn’t take into account the effect of so many dollars in extra fees, but reclassification is sure to depress mobile Internet usage, and therefore harder for doctors to disseminate medical information.
Unintended consequences abound when the federal government tries to help. In this instance, the government is trying to prevent net neutrality harms from taking place, but in reality you could count on one hand the number of times an Internet provider has attempted to block or slow down somebody else’s content. It is almost entirely a hypothetical harm, in contrast to the very real harm facing low income consumers if broadband is reclassified as a telecommunication service.