Policymakers in Washington may finally be getting the message regarding their misguided pursuit of rigid net neutrality regulation. Recent deliberations in Congress over the Waxman bill to clarify the regulatory approach to broadband Internet access should send a signal to the FCC that the legislature is the most appropriate place to address the issue of an Open Internet. While sponsors were unable to introduce the bill before adjourning for the midterm elections, the fact that Congress contemplated such a bill should remind the FCC that its time, energy, and resources are better spent on more pressing issues. MMTC praised Congressman Waxman’s efforts and urged the FCC to defer action on net neutrality until Congress has a chance to take up the Waxman bill in a lame duck session.
Further evidence can be found in a recent survey that reported that 75 percent of Americans feel that the Internet is currently working well and that 55 percent do not want the federal government to regulate it at this point in time. Although the members of the FCC are unelected officials appointed by the President, their actions should be tempered by public opinion since every action the Commission takes must be in the public interest. The FCC should realize that its expertise is better applied elsewhere right now.
Recent actions by the FCC suggest that it may be realizing that its yearlong effort to impose rigid net neutrality rules has been misguided. For example, the Commission recently released a call for additional public input regarding its proposal to classify broadband Internet access as akin, from a regulatory standpoint, to the basic telephone, a move that would make it easier for the FCC to implement rigid net neutrality rules, portions of which are opposed by over a dozen national civil rights organizations. This action signals an uncertainty by the FCC regarding whether any action it takes will stand on firm legal ground (spoiler: it likely won’t).
In addition, during the FCC’s most recent open meeting, the Commission finally addressed several issues that could have important real world impacts on consumers. These items included the release of a long-awaited set of rules for “white spaces,” which represent a potentially vast source of untapped resources for expanding broadband access, and a formal order that improves the e-rate program, which disperses federal funding to schools and libraries for broadband connectivity. Moreover, this week the FCC’s Advisory Committee on Diversity will take up a proposal that would expand the scope of opportunities available via the FCC to those people who have overcome a significant disadvantage in their life. If adopted, this new approach will ensure that all Americans are able to participate on equal footing in the media and telecom marketplace.These recent actions, of course, do not address the array of other open issues before the Commission that are essential to minority populations (there are 72 pending minority ownership and EEO proposals offered by MMTC or the Diversity Committee that the FCC has yet to touch; three of them have been pending for more than ten years). However, the fact that the FCC is finally acting on some of the recommendations outlined in its National Broadband Plan is a step in the right direction. But rather than stopping there and patting itself on the back, the FCC must continue forward by forging ahead on perhaps the most crucial aspect of the Plan – digital inclusion. Far too many minorities have yet to adopt broadband at home. Progress has been made in recent years, but the home adoption rate among African Americans remains 10 percent behind the general population, while recent research by Pew suggests that a digital divide is growing within the Hispanic population.
The FCC has spotted a light at the end of a very long and very dark tunnel. Its pursuit of rigid net neutrality rules has taken it and the American people on a dangerous detour from the task at hand – connecting as many people as possible to the Internet via broadband. Congressional action is appropriate and necessary to resolve open issues regarding how best to approach these new services. Hopefully, a legislative solution will be enacted once Congress reconvenes in November. In the meantime, the FCC should focus on that which it promised to focus on months ago: implementing the National Broadband Plan and getting back to the type of business – civil rights enforcement and promoting diversity in media and telecom ownership – that it was set up to conduct.
David Honig is MMTC’s President and Executive Director. He co-founded the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) in 1986. MMTC has represented over 70 minority, civil rights and religious national organizations in selected proceedings before the FCC, and it operates the nation’s only full service, minority owned media and telecom brokerage.