Higher Internet fees would be costly toll on the S.C. economy

In this Oct. 2, 2007 file photo, A.J. Bowen of Schupp's Line Construction, Inc. works on fiber-optic installation in Norton, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

When it comes to modern communication services, our state is a national leader. Forty percent of our residents live in wireless-only households, more than nearly all other Southern states. Connect South Carolina reports that 76 percent of our households use high-speed Internet service, up a dramatic 20 percent since 2010 and now significantly higher than the U.S. national average.

Given these advances, the news of a possible change in federal regulations that would make these services more expensive is unnerving and disappointing, especially for minority populations that have lower adoption rates of high-speed Internet.

This issue involves a lobbying effort to have the Federal Communications Commission apply regulations designed during the 1930s (think rotary phones) to today's Internet. Supporters say that these rules, sometimes called "Title II," are necessary to protect the Internet.

Unfortunately for them, they can't point to a single example where this would create any benefits for today's consumers.

By contrast, the problems with this change are significant and would be felt immediately.

Expanding these Title II rules from the 1930s to modern Internet systems would unleash a flurry of new fees on both home and wireless Internet services.

Every subscriber would have to pay, and in the case of a family, the annual cost is likely to be jaw-dropping.

Given South Carolina's current fee structure, expanding these Title II regulations would mean additional fees of between $59 and $107 a year on a home broadband connection. A typical smartphone user would pay between $63 and $114 in new annual fees.

If a person has a single Internet connection and a smartphone, he or she will pay at least another $10 a month and possibly as much as $19 a month, or $221 a year.

For what purpose? Especially for those living on a fixed income, these extra fees for the same service will have to come from other, probably more important needs.

The impact of Title II will be even more dramatic for families. A family of four with a single home Internet line and each member having a smartphone will likely have to pay at least $300 more during the year. Worse, that is the low estimate. More likely, they would pay closer to $600.

For African American communities where only 62 percent have a home broadband connection compared to 74 percent of white consumers, these new fees will present an unnecessary challenge.

While smartphones are helping to close the Internet access between African Americans and whites, there is still more progress to be made.

In addition to discouraging usage amongst various communities, these new rules would also undercut one of the key drivers of our economic growth.

Nearly two-thirds of economic development professionals in a recent Connect South Carolina survey reported that broadband is either "extremely important" or "very important" to help a location attract new businesses.

Experts also overwhelmingly believe that a digitally skilled workforce is crucial to making a community more attractive to business development.

By raising the cost of Internet service through Title II regulation, the federal government will be discouraging one of South Carolina's key economic advantages.

Congress wrote these federal Title II rules during the beginning of the Great Depression.

Our governor at the time was Ibra Charles Blackwood. It was a time of rotary telephones and operator-assisted calls. The idea of applying these antique rules to modern, high-speed fiber optic systems is expensive and pointless.

The Internet is helping South Carolina grow its economy, create jobs and opportunity.

The federal government should do everything possible to encourage our residents to develop Internet skills, not change rules to make this use dramatically more expensive.

Otha Meadows is president of the Charleston-Trident Urban League.