Net neutrality won't close the digital divide

by David Sutphen, Co-Chairman, Internet Innovation Alliance

We are at a critical moment in the broadband revolution. On the heels of a decade of remarkable investment in Internet infrastructure by ISPs and other network providers, the FCC has released its National Broadband Plan, which has the potential to further advance broadband deployment and close the Digital Divide.

On Monday, the IIA urged the FCC to devote all of its energies towards advancing and ensuring the success of the National Broadband Plan, as opposed to pushing ahead on net neutrality regulations. At this time, marketplace realities do not necessitate new Internet rules that may threaten to chill much needed infrastructure investments. 

Broadband adoption has jumped from under five percent to nearly 65 percent in the span of just ten years. Once again, that is nothing short of remarkable. But there is more to be done. As much as $350 billion is needed to carry out the ambitious goals laid out in the National Broadband Plan. Aside from the $7 billion for broadband infrastructure included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the majority of this significant investment will need to come from the private sector. 

Experts across the political spectrum agree that increased investment in broadband deployment offers great potential to create new jobs. Connected Nation reported that policies encouraging broadband adoption could help create or retain 2.4 million jobs-per year nationwide, and a recent study by Empiris found that broadband IT sectors created nearly half of all new domestic jobs in 2008. And recently, the White House hosted a Forum on Workplace Flexibility, where President Obama stressed the importance of bringing telecommuting opportunities to communities that need new jobs. The Administration clearly gets the importance of broadband, and its FCC is doing much to make universal access and adoption a reality. Net neutrality, by contrast, is more likely to hamper new job generation. Former FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott Roth noted that reduced broadband investment would decrease the value of American businesses and cause jobs to migrate elsewhere. A report produced this week by economist Coleman Bazelon said net neutrality regulations could cut revenue growth for broadband companies by one-sixth over the next decade and eliminate nearly 350,000 jobs in the broadband sector by 2020.

Those who have been slow to adopt are also those for whom broadband can make the most difference. Too many minorities, non-English speaking populations, and members of low income and rural communities remain disconnected. Policies proposed in the National Broadband Plan such as digital literacy programs and making technology more affordable address the challenges facing these demographics and could have a powerful and positive impact, provided it is not accompanied by new regulations that would depress investment. Net neutrality did not cause--nor will it close--the Digital Divide. 

The free and open nature of the Internet has been essential to its success and remains critical to its future. At a time when our nation faces many complex challenges, pursuing policies that foster increased broadband access and adoption so that every American, regardless of demographic or location, can harness the benefits of the Internet should remain the primary focus of the FCC's efforts. 

David Sutphen, Co-Chairman, Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA), is a monthly FierceTelecom columnist.