Impossible to miss, headlines highlighting the debate over so-called "net neutrality" have splashed across newspapers around the country for months. While ensuring "a free and open Internet" is a laudable and universally-shared goal, the degree to which it is at risk is very much in dispute. At some point it becomes necessary to weigh real-world problems against hypothetical possibilities, going with what is real and waiting to see if the theoretical threats materialize. From expert analysts to civil rights organizations to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, thoughtful voices across the spectrum have warned that excessive regulations could chill investment, hinder innovation by failing to anticipate technological development and ultimately kill jobs at a time when our economy needs all the investment, innovation and jobs it can get.
Earlier this summer, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) narrowly voted to pursue sweeping regulation of the Internet, reclassifying broadband services as "telecom services" under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Sanford Bernstein Senior Analyst Craig Moffet calls this unexpected approach the "nuclear option" and "an unequivocal negative" because the FCC's Title II plan threatens to undermine much-needed investment from the private sector and depress investor returns. Simply put by Citi Investment Research Managing Director of Telecom Services Mike Rollins: "Investors like certainty and visibility of policy."
Uncertainty also stifles innovation. A recent Washington Post editorial pinpoints the danger of trying to create rules for a dynamic, fast-paced technology like broadband:
"In a realm as complex and evolving as the Internet, where the challenges vary from year to year...it is impossible to predict the direction of innovation...Allowing the FCC to enforce [rules] on a case-by-case basis can leverage expertise and create a body of useful precedent, rather than stifling innovation with unwieldy preemptive regulations."
Highlighting net neutrality's potential threat to the jobs economy, the Alliance for Women in Media recently weighed in on one possible impact of the FCC's approach: "AWM shares the fears of many industry and public interest group commenters that imposing the common carrier regulatory structure and its attendant costs could reduce investment and employment in broadband, with particular adverse impact on opportunities for women."
In a letter to the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committees, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL) also expressed concern about the FCC's intention to change the ‘light touch' regulatory approach to the Internet that has inspired so much investment, innovation and competition: "Given America's current economic difficulties, it is more urgent than ever for government at all levels to promote policies that encourage jobs and job creation."
From both sides of the aisle, more than 300 members of the House and Senate have questioned the FCC's authority to institute Chairman Genachowski's Title II proposal. Like the IIA, these Members support competition, investment and innovation, and believe the historical framework for Internet oversight - light touch under Title I - has yielded tremendous successes. The FCC should take note and move beyond the gridlock by looking to reach a compromise solution in determining appropriate rules for broadband services. As stated in a letter to the FCC from Representative Gene Green (D - TX) and other democratic members of Congress, the controversy surrounding the net neutrality debate is a "distraction from what should be our Nation's foremost communications priority: bringing broadband to every corner of America, getting every American online, and providing the high speed connections needed to realize the promises of telemedicine, distance learning, and other forms of consumer empowerment."
Bruce Mehlman is a co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance and a monthly FierceTelecom columnist chronicling broadband regulations.