Belt-tightening and broadband

AT&T’s earnings report today was not as bad as some had feared. But one particularly gloomy aspect was the slow growth in broadband, one more symptom of a sluggish national economy.

According to AT&T, some people are canceling their broadband connections in order to save money, reasoning that they can use their office computers to access the Internet. AT&T CFO Rick Lindner called them “value” customers (are those like “values voters,” I wonder?). But if these people have office Internet connections, they likely don’t have blue collars; they’re not bus drivers or waiters. They’re white-collar workers who would rather fill up their gas tanks than their phone lines. The irony, of course, is that if they were able to keep their broadband connections and work from home, they would likely reap a much larger savings by not buying the gas needed to drive to and from work each day.

In any event, this trend adds an interesting angle to recent discussions of national broadband policy, including the notion voiced by FCC commissioner Michael Copps this week that broadband is a “civil right.”

“No matter who you are, or where you live, or how much money you make … you will need, and you are entitled to have these tools available to you, I think, as a civil right,” Copps said.

This concept tends to provoke cynicism in me, as I imagine telling my son one day that his father’s generation fought bravely for his right to watch stuff like this without jitter or latency. And as I pointed out recently, plenty of Americans still see broadband as far from essential, not the kind of indispensable item that requires constitutional protection (like, say, a gun). And the idea of “broadband for everyone” gets blurry for me as the term “broadband” comes to encompass widely disparate things (for example, in the future, according to one industry exec, it’s how we’ll try on suits).

But as economic pressures weigh on us all, we get a clearer view of exactly how Americans prioritize broadband and the “value” they place on it when value matters most.

What do YOU think? Please post a comment below.

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