Detour on the road to universal broadband

Bruce MehlmanThese days it's increasingly difficult to find bipartisan agreement on core issues facing our nation. From health care to climate change to international tax reform, our country seems more polarized than ever. On one important issue, by contrast, an impressive bipartisan consensus has emerged that promises some hope for the future. Specifically, a bipartisan majority in Congress have spoken out against a regulatory sea change proposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Internet Innovation AllianceThe issue is how to encourage the deployment and adoption of broadband. And it involves no less than the future of the Internet.  For more than a decade, the existing regulatory structure--originally adopted by the Clinton Administration--has encouraged market competition and hundreds of billions of dollars in broadband investment from the private sector through modest and limited regulation. This cautious, light touch has led to the creation of millions of domestic jobs and facilitated the rapid expansion of Internet availability that now reaches 95 percent of Americans. 

In response to a recent court case, however, the FCC has proposed new and potentially sweeping regulatory oversight, reclassifying information services as telecom services. Such a drastic reorientation was not necessitated by new technologies nor by the natural evolution of the marketplace, but rather by regulators distressed that their 1996 legal mandate did not envision the innovations and entrepreneurship of 2010. 

While the FCC has demonstrated wisdom and vision in much of the 384-page national broadband policy it issued two months ago, our confidence in their sincere promises to forbear from imposing new regulations does not warrant blind support for the regulatory blank check they seek. Over time, regulators almost always use all of the powers they are given and then some. Better to let Congress narrowly prescribe such authorities when and as they are necessitated by market failures and actual situations "on the ground."

If we are ever to reach 100 percent broadband penetration--an important goal of the Obama Administration that we wholeheartedly share--we will need to ensure maximum investment, innovation and competition across access platforms. The optimal environment for such outcomes would have narrowly-tailored regulations targeted at specific problems rather than sweeping rules for problems that do not exist. The FCC's so-called "third way" is the wrong way. The application of these archaic rules will bring uncertainty to the market, stifling Internet investment and innovation. 

Instead of the proposed broad-brush FCC approach, we believe the following Four Pillars for Broadband Policy outline a strategic roadmap to achieving universal broadband based on proven successes of the past. 

IIA - four pillars of broadband policy1. Put Consumers First - Consumers benefit most from market-based competition, where providers compete on cost and innovation to attract and retain their business. While public policies should address transparency, fraud and demonstrated market failures, consumers lose when market-driven innovation and investment take a back seat to political considerations or preemptive regulation.

2. Promote Investment to Maximize Competition - Government cannot and should not finance network buildout and maintenance.  But universal connectivity demands robust private investment. Policy makers' primary objective in implementing the National Broadband Plan should be maximizing innovation in multiple platforms and networks, rather than minimizing individual ISPs' ability to manage and operate their specific networks.

3. Minimize Regulation to Reduce Investor Uncertainty - Regulatory authority should be narrow in scope and precise in implementation, addressing actual market failures and clear government responsibilities (e.g., spectrum allocations and interference). Excessive regulations chill investment, hinder innovation and consistently fail to anticipate technological development. 

4.  Maximize Connectivity to All Communities - Rather than battling over hypothetical disputes between transport and content businesses, policy makers should identify those precise areas where additional authority is needed to expand connectivity to those who remain disconnected.  Expanded spectrum access, digital literacy programs and subsidized technology initiatives are proven remedies to digital divides brought on by demographic, educational and income-based disadvantages.   

The future of the Internet is at stake. What is needed now is clear guidance to regulators as the result of thoughtful debate and considered policy decisions by elected officials in Congress and the Administration. With thoughtful and modest bipartisan action, we can achieve universal access to high-speed Internet for all Americans, making our country a better, more prosperous, and fairer society. Let's avoid unnecessary detours.

Bruce Mehlman is a co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance and a monthly FierceTelecom columnist chronicling broadband regulations.

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