This week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote to end one of the most contested telecommunications debates in recent history – the future of the Internet. Or at least, that is what the FCC thinks. Already challenged by two Commissioners and members of Congress, the open Internet vote is under scrutiny amidst calls for the agency’s release of the Order for public consumption and comment. Ironically, what started out as a quest toward greater online transparency has lost its focus and left behind those who are most at risk of being impacted by the final policy decisions – underserved consumers.
In the last two weeks, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler declared that the agency will lay down strong and enforceable rules of the road for Internet regulation that even surpass the White House’s vocal aspirations. Meanwhile, members of Congress have been circulating a draft legislative proposal to avoid the potential legal, technical, and social collision of overzealous regulation on Internet Service Providers (ISPs); regulations that, in our understanding of the present form of the draft proposal, contain few consumer protections.
Without question, the outcome of this debate will have winners and losers, spanning industry, government, and a wide range of consumers. Last year, what started as the continuation of the conversation on Internet freedom shifted to an argument focused on the reclassification of broadband and the extent to which transformative high-speed networks should be governed under the same set of rules that have applied to telephone service since 1912 (commonly called “Title II” regulation).
Unfortunately, the current politics obscure a much bigger issue: the unavoidable tension between “pure” Internet openness and our nation’s efforts to expand broadband access to underserved areas. Low broadband adoption rates among economically disadvantaged households, people of color, seniors, and people with disabilities prevent them from securing the benefits of a first-class, 21st century digital world.
Then there is the uncertainty of future and long-term investment, particularly in communities of color and rural areas, that threatens broadband deployment in less attractive markets. And let’s not forget about the possibility of regressive taxation through new telecom-related fees not exempted under the current legislative moratorium. Those surprise taxes and fees will be a daunting wake-up call to consumers on the fringe of broadband adoption, and more so to all consumers – whether middle class or economically disadvantaged.
All of these factors point to an underestimation of the potential consequences of regulatory overreach.
Broadband has generated smarter phones and applications that are quickly transforming industry sectors like energy, transportation, and health care, and essentially bringing products, services, and people closer. Those who are currently underserved by high-speed broadband will be impacted by any use of heavy-handed Title II regulation, which will curtail the meteoric growth of the Internet. Further, the promise that broadband innovation will solve persistent social problems that impact vulnerable populations may not be realized. Simultaneously, the recommendation in the draft legislation to rid the FCC of its previous authority – Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act – that prohibits digital redlining, enacts universal service protections, and ensures public safety, is also a slippery slope for future telecommunications policy.
The stakes are high for an estimated 30 million people who have not yet chosen to adopt broadband, primarily due to cost concerns and a perceived lack of relevancy. Thus, the digital divide provides another reason for Congress to act to preserve net neutrality provisions set forth by President Obama and the FCC while moving this from a debate to a legislative compromise.
Bipartisan agreement has historically resulted in comprehensive and effective telecom reform. Further, FCC chairs from both parties have consistently rejected prior proposals to subject broadband to Title II regulation, and in doing so, stimulated the Internet ecosystem that has fostered more creative devices, applications, and higher-speed access.
It would be profoundly unwise to subject today’s dynamic broadband industry to outdated regulations designed for a time when telephones were a mere novelty. Rather than fitting a round peg into a square hole, Congress should create a compromise that doesn’t rely on Title II, but includes clearly articulated statutes and enforcements. This action would at least allow for a more palatable solution that meets the direct demands of the White House while ensuring Internet openness.
It’s time for Congress to get to work on a bipartisan fix to what will otherwise become an enormous strain on the Internet ecosystem and consumers.
- Nicol Turner-Lee, Ph.D., Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee is Vice President and Chief Research and Policy Officer for the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC). Prior to joining MMTC, she served as President and CEO to NAMIC, a professional association representing diversity in the cable industry and as Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.