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Net Neutrality's End Will Turn Digital Divide Into Digital Chasm

In an era in which people increasingly watch shows on smartphones and tablets, there is simply too much money at stake for the FCC not to update its antiquated rules.

Net neutrality is already dead, no matter how much the feds hem and haw on the subject.

The idea that the Federal Communications Commission will back off on plans to allow companies like Netflix and Hulu to pay Internet service providers fees to stream their content faster is fanciful at best. In an era in which people increasingly watch shows on smartphones and tablets, there is simply too much money at stake for the FCC not to update its antiquated rules.

Too bad that comes at the expense of poorer minority communities who still lag in access to broadband technologies.

"Anytime we don't have a level playing field, there is a huge risk for people who have the least," said Dr. Bill Baker, director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Education and Public Policy at Fordham University in New York. Major content companies will "gobble up lots of bandwidth, and the have-nots who don't have $4,000 high-definition televisions will get the short stick."

Giants trump cats

In other words, big tech companies like Netflix will pay Internet service providers for smoother and more reliable streaming of content. Only industry giants will be able to afford the tolls - leaving my YouTube cat videos in the dust. On the surface, that sounds like a good idea - though my cats would disagree. But remember, Netflix and its peers will wind up passing those extra costs to consumers.

In a country where many can't afford Internet access or a smartphone, any additional fees will wind up being a further barrier for entry.

According to a study by Pew Research, 74 percent of white households in the United States enjoyed at least one broadband connection, compared with 64 percent of blacks and 53 percent of Latinos. When it comes to high-speed Internet access, 84 percent of those making between $50,000 and $70,000 connect, compared with 70 percent of those making between $30,000 and $49,999 and just 54 percent for those who earn less.

This is more important than streaming TV and Facebook status updates. In education, health care and business, the Internet has become so ingrained in our daily lives that some groups call universal broadband access the defining civil rights issue of our time.

"Broadband is a critical piece of national infrastructure, we must protect it," according to a report by the Center for Media Justice in Oakland. "As we move further into the 21st century, all people - and especially communities of color - need an affordable, accessible and well-distributed national Internet backbone. As the numbers of people of color using the Internet, and its relevance in their lives, grows, it is imperative that this critical national infrastructure not be left to the whims of the market."

Expect a digital chasm

Unfortunately, money trumps all. The FCC's new rules will likely quash net neutrality as we know it. And unless the agency includes provisions to require that companies guarantee consistent streaming speeds to poorer communities, the so-called digital divide will become a digital chasm.

For what it's worth, content providers have a very good business reason not to alienate minorities. From 2009 and 2012, the share of Latino adults who go online at least occasionally jumped to 78 percent from 64 percent, Pew Research said. Over the same period, the number of Latinos who own cell phones surged to 86 percent from 76 percent.

Those are a lot of potential customers that Netflix, Internet service providers and the FCC should keep in mind.

©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle

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