Back in the infancy of the Internet Age, our hippest policy wonks orated endlessly about the emerging “information superhighway.”

But that mouthful of a moniker would soon fall out of fashion. Anyone today who talks about the “information superhighway” comes across as a hopelessly uncool 1990s throwback. The irony here? If we truly treated the Internet as a “superhighway,” maybe we wouldn’t find ourselves in the online mess that now envelops us.

Merging into an Information Superhighway Bottleneck, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Merging into an Information Superhighway Bottleneck, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Americans currently pay much more for Internet access than just about everybody else in the developed world. Many other countries have established fast, cheap Internet access as a given of modern life. In the United States, we surf the Net at Model T speeds — and tens of millions of Americans still have no broadband at all.

This pitiful situation may soon get even worse. Two corporate giants, Comcast and Time Warner, are now seeking regulatory approval for a $45 billion merger that would leave Comcast controlling the bulk of the nation’s broadband access.

In 19 of the nation’s 20 largest metro areas, the “only choice for a high-capacity wired connection will be Comcast,” points out telecom industry watchdog Susan Crawford.

So how would thinking “superhighway” help us out of this mess? America’s only actual “superhighway” — our Interstate road network — demonstrates quite neatly the wonders we can realize once we start thinking about basic infrastructure as a public good, not a source of grand private fortune.

Our Interstate’s greatest champion, President Dwight Eisenhower, believed that every citizen had a “vital interest” in a “safe and adequate highway system.” In 1956, Ike signed legislation that authorized America’s largest public works project ever, the construction of a new superhighway that would operate totally under public control.

This public control simply seemed the only way to go for Americans in the middle of the 20th century — and not just for highways. These years would see a vast expansion of public infrastructure, for everything from recreation to education.

What explains this golden age of infrastructure? Relative economic equality certainly played a prime role. By the 1950s, the nation’s original plutocracy had faded away. A mass middle class, the world’s first ever, had jumped onto political center stage.

Most Americans in this new, more equal America faced similar problems. Public solutions just seemed common sense. Build the Interstate with public tax dollars? Operate the Interstate under public control? Of course. Americans of the mid-20th century could see no alternative.

An alternative — we know today in our much more unequal America — does exist: Private interests could control our public goods. We could have decided 60 years ago to lease out the Interstate to private companies.

If we had organized the Interstate along these lines, anyone wanting to ride the system would have been paying tribute all these years to private corporations. And the execs in those corporations would have become rich enough to corrupt our political system — and keep their monopoly power secure.

This scenario should all sound a bit familiar. In contemporary America, we’ve let private corporations determine who can access our data superhighway. That control has generated grand fortunes — and formidable political power.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts has become a billionaire. His top lobbyist used to sit on the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that has to decide whether to approve the Comcast merger with Time Warner. The other federal body with a say in the merger has a chief who helped grease the skids, as a corporate attorney, for Comcast’s 2011 takeover of NBC Universal.

Brian Roberts and his corporate counterparts have essentially created a giant wealth extraction machine, sucking on average over $150 a month per household for TV, phone, and Internet, a bundle that costs a French household in Paris much less than one-third that price.

What’s the first step toward turning this situation around? Stop the Comcast and Time Warner merger.

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Sam Pizzigati

OtherWords columnist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, edits the inequality weekly Too Much. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class.

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