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May 2015 Archives

The Internet Game

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Everyone knows that Washington, D.C. is a city that lives and dies with every move that their NFL professional football team makes 365/24/7. The mood of the entire city is set by how well the team playing. So it's interesting watching the political football game being played out on federal Internet policy issues. For nearly 20 years this issue has been one of the few issues that brought members of congress together.
Right now, the stakes are too high, particularly given next year's Federal auction of wireless spectrum to fuel mobile Internet growth. And now that the courts have been called upon to referee our Internet regulations (the third time in five years), Congress has a responsibility to weigh in and take action in a bipartisan way to ensure our policies can strengthen this amazing platform for telehealth and other applications that help improve the lives of Americans across the country.
This problem began in February when the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to use Title II rules, written in 1934, to regulate the Internet as a public utility. The economic implications of that vote are huge.  Among industries that generate capital investment, only the energy industry surpasses broadband Internet deployment.  In fact, even when you include all industries, the top two investors in our nation's economy were broadband providers.  In 2013, broadband investment was $75 billion, up nearly 10 percent from 2012.
The FCC's action also shattered the previous bipartisan unity around a policy started during the Clinton Administration.  The short-term harm from the Commission's Title II vote is already apparent. The FCC has received multiple documented examples of compliance costs interfering with rural broadband improvement, and with these new rules potentially strangling innovation and investment, our diverse communities stand to suffer as broadband providers are now forced to rethink how much they should invest under this new bureaucratic scrutiny.
The brakes on the Internet's development seem inevitable. "We decline to adopt fixed, short deadlines for resolving formal complaints," the FCC's order says.  According to The Wall Street Journal, the FCC actually rejected a 90-day deadline for resolving complaints.
Other problems relate to the difficulties of applying rules from 1934 to modern technology.  Take Internet exchange, the complicated system that enables data consumers want to access on the Internet to cross multiple networks from various servers and Internet systems.  The FCC says that agreements must be "just and reasonable." But what is the definition of 'just and reasonable'?  Nobody knows.
If that sounds vague, here's how the Commission explains it: "While we have more than a decade's worth of experience with last-mile practices, we lack a similar depth of background in the Internet traffic exchange context."
Amid this bad news, a silver lining is emerging.  Leaders from both parties in Congress increasingly seem to recognize this threat to the Internet. A compromise involving "light touch" rules for tomorrow's technology cannot come too soon. As I've written (here and here), the growth of telehealth and mHealth could help millions gain affordable health care access, especially among our various diverse communities who need broadband access the most.  But telehealth and mHealth will only reach their potential if the Internet itself continues to grow and flourish.
The need for Congressional action is particularly important given the urgency of resolving legal uncertainties before next year's Federal wireless spectrum auction. The FCC, which is handling the auction, has now placed the mobile Internet - which had never been heavily regulated - under its wide thumb with the exact same rules enacted during the Great Depression. 
The response from Congress and consumers should be clear: No.  The same framework that brought us the wonders of the Internet and its empowering opportunities of free speech, civic engagement and educational pursuits should be the same rules that allow the Internet to thrive in the 21st century.  Rather than a forward-looking approach, the FCC decided to look backwards 100 years. 
Our system for overseeing the Internet, which worked so well for so long, has seemingly come apart.  It's time for Congress to come together and step up to protect the Internet and the opportunity for companies to invest and create new opportunities.

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