Broadband is a lifeline service.

A common thread running through many of the most contentious arguments involving telecom markets worldwide is the issue of ensuring access to broadband.

Brian SantoIn the U.S., these arguments include defining the mission and scope of the Universal Service Fund, what to do with the D-block of 700 MHz spectrum, whether to open the use of white spaces, whether to approve the AT&T merger with T-Mobile, and more.

These disagreements are hopelessly tangled in another argument entirely: What role should the government have in any market, let alone the broadband market? North Carolina’s state legislature just passed a law prohibiting municipal broadband services.

But in the communications industry, many free-market and anti-regulatory arguments would be mooted if the market provided what is being asked for – affordable and universal access to broadband. Now, not later.

Even though consumers have eagerly adopted broadband without the lifeline guarantees that still apply to traditional telephony, that doesn’t mean the service is any less critical. The industry should not take the cavalier attitude of its customers as license. Broadband is a lifeline service.

Besides missing broadband, people in remote areas also miss opportunities for improved education and medical care. Small towns report an inability to retain or lure businesses because broadband is lacking.

Being less affluent and living in a remote area does not make people second-class citizens.

And yet they’re stuck traversing a second-class loop; if they can’t afford broadband, they can’t get it, and it’s harder to afford it if they don’t have it.

The proximate inspiration for all of this is AT&T’s proposed takeover of T-Mobile. AT&T says it needs the merger to bring broadband to underserved areas. It absolutely does not need T-Mobile to do that, but since blocking this merger is unlikely, it seems reasonable to obligate them to do it – on a specific and short timetable.

If economic development in the U.S. is a value, if democracy is a value, then forcing AT&T to live up to its promises seems the absolute least the government should be allowed to do.

The argument remains unresolved about whether access to broadband is or is not a right, but the evidence keeps mounting that introducing broadband can be as elemental to a community as rain on parched farmland.