By Christopher D. Coursen Much has been made of the recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to heed the calling of President Barack Obama to work around Congress and impose antiquated common carrier, utility regulations on the Internet. These new rules come despite no evidence showing market failure or harm to consumers, and despite what Chairman Tom Wheeler says, they will inevitably result in rate regulation of all Internet services. Also looming large is market uncertainty caused by myriad legal challenges, the taxation on American consumers through an expansion of the Universal Service Fund to cover broadband and the thwarting of needed legislative efforts to overhaul the Communications Act of 1934 in its entirety.
Conspicuously absent from the discussion is a reasoned explanation of why the Internet has previously been defined as an information service, and why regulating the Internet like the Ma Bell telephone network of old is bad policy. Perhaps by addressing this head on, more moderate Democratic members of Congress will feel compelled to support the sensible and realistic legislation introduced by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., and House Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore.
Their bill reflects the reasonable middle ground approach that, ironically, Chairman Wheeler espoused before overt pressure from Obama to enact draconian utility regulations. The legislation, which retains the rightful provision of Internet services as an information service, but enacts into law the very consumer protections that Democrats desire — no blocking, slowing or prioritizing content by Internet providers — is a bold compromise.
Advancing this reasonable policy and restoring the Internet as an information service before the FCC rules take effect on June 12, 2015 is absolutely critical.
A group of “tech innovators” recently argued the decision to privatize the Internet and treat it as an information service may have been the single greatest policy decision of the past twenty years. “The communicating public has enjoyed the benefits of a thousand fold improvement from the 56Kbps dial-up modems that the 15 million early Internet adopters relied on in 1995,” the group wrote to Congress. Indeed, the Internet now reaches roughly 90 percent of the country.
While easily dismissed at times, Internet companies have invested more than $120 billion to further Internet access and adoption. Had the Internet been subjected to the litany of common carriage regulations it will soon be, there is little denying that the widespread use of the Internet would be much lower and that many of our favorite web companies, may have never even been created. Its mother-may- I structure halted any sign of innovation over the phone networks and would have done the same to the Internet. It likely will now.
So why are we suddenly looking to upend this wildly successful system and emulate a European model, let alone a dictatorial model imposed by China, Russia and Cuba?
“Some claim the European model of service-based competition, induced by stiff telephone-style regulation, outperforms the facilities-based competition practiced in the U.S. in promoting broadband,” scholar Christopher Yoo wrote in a 2014 report. But according to his findings, the U.S. outperforms Europe in access and overall coverage. “Regression analysis indicates that the U.S. approach has proven more effective in promoting [next generation coverage] than the European approach.”
Put more simply, Europe and the globe at large trail the U.S. in innovation. Nearly all of the world’s favorite Internet brands — Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. — call the U.S. home. This is no accident. These companies have been free to innovate in an unfettered Internet market. Now they too will be ensnared by sweeping antiquated telephone regulations of the last century, imposed by an increasingly rogue FCC. Perhaps this is why we have already seen Netflix and Google, leaders in the move toward the shift, demonstrate some buyer’s remorse.
The available option is clear and readily available to Democrats on Capitol Hill who so far have disregarded the significant concessions Republicans are making to avoid the regulatory straight jacket of the FCC regulations. It is a simple piece of legislation — four pages versus 400 from the FCC — built to withstand the future. By acting in a bipartisan way, Congress can right the FCC’s wrongs.
To bring freedom of technology and telecommunications to the 21st Century, America needs action — now. That action should come from our elected representatives, not from unelected bureaucrats.
Christopher D. Coursen is the founder of The Status Group, a technology & telecommunications consulting firm. He formerly served as majority communications counsel for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and as an adviser to both the Ronald Reagan and George Bush Administrations. The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.