Forward, not back, on Internet regulation

Applying 1934 rules to the 21st century Internet would chill innovation and reduce consumer choice.

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There is a “virtual” battle brewing in Washington, D.C. that could affect Internet users across the country – particularly in regard to broadband access, adoption and affordability.

“Applying a 20th century regulatory solution to a 21st century issue is illogical, irrational and flies in the face of what pragmatic legislators should be seeking.”
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is reviewing proposed changes to the way it regulates the nation’s high-speed Internet. Specifically, Chairman Tom Wheeler and the FCC are evaluating “net neutrality” rules, or in their words, “how best to ensure the Internet remains an open platform for innovation and expression.”

But given the unbridled success and growth of the Internet over the past two decades, it’s unclear how any additional rules would benefit Internet users or address ways to ensure that more Americans, including those in rural and urban areas, have access to affordable high speed Internet service.

The success of the Internet has been based on a long-standing, bipartisan policy approach that has enabled next-generation investment.  Under President Bill Clinton, the FCC had the foresight to implement a “light but tough” regulatory framework for the Internet, which has been the foundation for the United States’ global leadership in broadband opportunity and competition. Changing this approach now wastes an opportunity for government to help facilitate Internet policy that improves the lives of more Americans through expanded access.

“Classifying broadband as a public utility would especially hurt African Americans and other minority groups, as well as those residing in rural communities.”
In particular, some have advocated for the FCC to classify broadband services as a rotary phone-era Title II “common carrier”service.  Without a clearly defined problem, this “new way” is not a pragmatic policy solution and is a step backwards towards an obsolete era.  Such rules would cause all providers of broadband Internet access to be classified as ‘public utilities,” and their Internet transmissions would be governed under the rules and requirements of the 1934 Communications Act.

Applying a 20th century regulatory solution to a 21st century issue is illogical, irrational and flies in the face of what pragmatic legislators should be seeking. Rewinding the clock into an 80 year time warp to monopoly-era regulation would not only stifle investment and innovation, it would also be detrimental for American consumers and the continued effort to close the digital divide in rural, highly urban, and poorer parts of our country.

Today, 98 percent of American consumers have broadband access, and more than 88 million households subscribe to broadband services. Internet service providers offer a variety of choices, delivering broadband via phone lines, cable, fiber, satellite, and fixed and mobile wireless connections – all of which are capable of delivering speeds unthinkable a decade ago. But there is always work to be done, and shaping policy for 1934 instead of 2014 will hardly expand the opportunities afforded by broadband technology.

Classifying broadband as a public utility would especially hurt African Americans and other minority groups, as well as those residing in rural communities who have embraced the digital revolution to find jobs, enjoy better access to health care and expand their educational opportunities.

Forcing innovators to seek affirmative government permission prior to rolling out new options, services, and packages, would be a substantial roadblock to innovation and investment, and add substantial delay and uncertainty to product development. For example, if a broadband provider wanted to dedicate a line to a rural hospital for telemedicine services to ensure there is no delay in transmitting a signal or network congestion, this type of business arrangement would require the permission of regulators under Title II.  The result would be a slowdown in innovation and in progress toward expanding access to quality and efficient health care.

Likewise, the affordable, open marketplace that rural Americans and minority groups have come to rely on for access to education, healthcare and job searches would become more expensive and less dynamic.

Earlier this year, the D.C. Circuit Court struck down the 2010 Open Internet rules, providing the FCC with a roadmap to enact new, enforceable rules. While not perfect, allowing the FCC to protect consumers and the Internet through this existing framework – rather than through new, drastic measures – is far more fitting for an industry that has thrived under a light-touch approach.

In 1999, President Clinton’s FCC Chair, Bill Kennard, explained that applying utility rules (like those under Title II) “threaten to slow down the nascent broadband industry.” Kennard was right then, and I would argue he is right today.

The Internet has fundamentally changed society, the way we live and work – creating jobs, driving innovation, connecting us to friends, providing news and information and fueling advancements across a range of fields.

Utility rules would stifle investment and disrupt the entire broadband economy, chilling innovation and reducing consumer choice. I can only hope that Chairman Wheeler will demonstrate his leadership on this issue and maintain the light-touch regulatory approach to the Internet that has successfully connected us in ways we could ever think or imagine.

Former Rep. Eva M. Clayton represented North Carolina’s 1st District from 1992 to 2003 and served as assistant secretariat general at the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome.