In 2013, gridlock seemed to rule the day. Too often the policy making environment was stuck in neutral, impacting nearly every aspect of our economy, including the communications sector. Our nation’s expert agency on communications policy was limited in its ability to function at full capacity, as the nominations of Tom Wheeler as chairman and Michael O’Reilly as a commissioner to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a backseat to partisan squabbling in Congress for nearly six months. As one-sixth of our economy, the communications and information technology sector is critical to boosting growth, employment, and entrepreneurial opportunities. Instead of bickering, it’s time for policymakers in Washington to get to work on a busy 2014 communications agenda.
Congress and the FCC appear committed to ushering in a new age of communications policy better suited for today’s digital age than the current laws which have become obsolete given they were written eighteen years ago at a time when only 20 million American adults had access to an Internet absent of Google, Facebook or Wikipedia. With big ticket items on the 2014 agenda — including the Internet Protocol transition, mobile wireless spectrum auctions, and the beginning discussion in Congress of how best to modernize obsolete communications law — policymakers have important work to ensure that consumers continue to benefit from dynamic innovation and technological advancements that wired and wireless broadband Internet delivers. This includes better access to health care delivery and lower costs, as well as instant access to educational resources needed to help our youth regain footing in a competitive and global market.
As work on these critical issues that will fundamentally shape our digital future gets underway, let’s hope that the proverbial “thorn in the paw” of telecom policy – the recent D.C. Circuit Court decision over the FCC’s Open Internet Order or “net neutrality” – will not distract attention away from these important issues.
Net neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated the same regardless of size, content or sender. This means that Internet traffic carrying an echocardiogram being sent to a cardiologist must be treated the same as a teenager watching a YouTube video. While neutrality sounds pleasant, in practice it slows technological progress and makes the Internet a one-size-fits-all, medium-to-low bandwidth instead of one where each individual’s experience is efficiently customized to their needs and is free of discrimination. A world that forces low-income and price-sensitive consumers to subsidize high-end bandwidth users and gives no flexibility to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to experiment with business arrangements that could help defer costs away from low income consumers, does not seem fair.
Proponents of net neutrality argue that the role of our ISPs is to simply relay information, regardless of its type or strain on the network, essentially making our networks “dumb pipes” like those for water or electricity. But this concept ignores the brilliance of Internet networks – which are “smart” and can be managed fairly and non-discriminatingly for more efficient use. This network management helps ISPs meet consumer demand and in the future could provide customized services like mobile and remote health care monitoring, flexible education and smart energy use in homes. Simply put, net neutrality limits flexibility in what tomorrow’s networks and Internet experiences will look like. As the D.C. Circuit Court issued its decision, it would behoove us all to take a deep breath and move on to more pressing matters that Congress and the FCC have on their agendas.
This country has always been the innovation capital of the world, and in 2014 Congress and the FCC can help maintain our position by shaping an Internet policy framework for the future, moving forward on spectrum auctions, and putting the net neutrality debate behind us once and for all.
Eva Clayton is a former Democratic member of Congress who represented eastern North Carolina from 1992–2003.