When the Framers of the US Constitution came up with Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 – the “Postal Clause” – their primary concern was to create an infrastructure for the new nation that would facilitate communications between various states and regions. It gave Congress the power to “establish Post Offices and Post Roads.” According to records made of the Constitutional Convention of September 1789, there was discussion of creating “post roads” and “a power to provide for cutting canals as necessary.” James Madison wanted to “secure easy communication between the States…the political obstacles being removed, a removal of the natural ones (i.e., geographic and geological barriers) as far as possible ought to follow.”
It goes without saying that the Framers could not have foreseen the development of the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television and now the Internet. For those living in the late 18th Century, “communications” consisted of written documents, carried by hand from one location to another.
Today, the Postal Clause of the Constitution simply says that Congress shall have the power “to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.” Today, the Constitution would be written to provide “establish servers and fiber optic cables.”
Like the Post Office, which operates more efficiently and cheaply than any similar service in the world (despite what current corporate handmaidens in the federal legislature would have you believe), today’s Internet might have been a public utility – as it is in many countries. Instead, in the US, it is controlled primarily by private telecommunications companies such as Comcast. They charge more and provide slower and shoddier service – because they can. At the same time, right-wing corporatist lawmakers who would give control of the Internet (built with public funds, incidentally) over to Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and other major corporations to turn into their own propaganda and consumer advertising platform, continue to insist that the private sector does everything better and more efficiently.
Does it? People living in Chattanooga, Tennessee don’t think so. Those residents have had public Internet since 2009. Every year, the city has upgraded the service at no additional charge to ratepayers. Last year, residents who chose the city’s plan paid $58 a month for 100 megabits per second. Compare that to the average private corporate Internet provider, charging $50-$60 per month for speeds averaging less than 10 megabits. According to an article published last year at CNN Money, Chattanooga’s own public utility, the Electric Power Board, offers ratepayers faster Internet speeds at a more competitive price than any of the private telecoms.
If one municipality can do it, why can’t the Federal government? Although the Postal Clause does not specifically grant Congress the power to establish a public Internet service, that clause has been open to different interpretations over the decades. If the underlying intention of the law was to “secure easy communications” as James Madison envisioned, could the Postal Clause be interpreted in such a way as to include Internet access and regulation?
Anything is possible, though these days, with the legislature and the judiciary held hostage by corporate interests, it’s unlikely.
It’s still something to think about.