I recently visited Washington state for a series of discussions on how best to spread the benefits of broadband to everyone, how to encourage the investment and innovation that will make the next generation of broadband a reality – and for some in our rural areas, to bring the benefits of broadband for the first time.
My home state of Virginia, which I represented in the U.S. Congress, bears a strong resemblance to Washington state. Both produce great apples and excellent wine; both are leaders in the internet economy. At the same time, there are rural areas of each state that need to attract more broadband investment so that they can share in the prosperity of the internet economy.
In fact, across the nation there is an urgent need for massive new broadband investments which will help to usher in the fifth generation of internet services: the technology that will enable connected cars, connected appliances and all the innovations that will come with the internet of things.
Progress begins with a resolution of the decade-long debate over network neutrality. Lack of progress on this front is holding up action on addressing the other critical challenges to broadband deployment.
The major broadband providers long ago adopted principles of an open internet, making network neutrality today’s “business as usual.”
The basic principles of the open internet are clear: No blocking or censorship of legitimate online content. No fast lanes for some content providers while others are relegated to slower lanes. No throttling (slowing down) of content. And no unfair discrimination against legitimate online content. These principles are foundational, and broadband providers have publicly pledged to observe them.
But the network neutrality debate continues about the best way to give these principles the force of law. Some argue that network neutrality is best assured by applying to broadband providers common carrier rules stemming from the era of monopoly telephone service beginning in the 1930s. Broadband providers argue that common carrier rules create too much regulatory uncertainty which diminish their willingness to invest in network deployment. They prefer that broadband be classified as an information service to be lightly overseen by the FCC, the status that broadband enjoyed from the Clinton administration until 2015.
The good news is that meaningful discussions in Congress are beginning about bipartisan legislation which will give statutory permanence to open internet guarantees while at the same time classifying broadband as an information service to be lightly overseen by the FCC. In fact, the legislation could become an internet consumers’ Bill of Rights also assuring strong privacy protections for internet users.
While broadband providers have endorsed open internet principles which are today benefiting consumers, it’s now time for others in the internet ecosystem, including the creators of internet content, the companies such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook, to participate in the legislative effort.
Politically, all sides stand to gain from passing such a statute. Democrats and internet content creators would receive the strong network neutrality protections they have long sought, and Republicans would realize their goal of permanent information services status for broadband. Consumers would broadly benefit by having an understandable set of privacy guarantees that apply to their entire internet experience.
There’s a role for federal investment in broadband in hard-to-serve areas, just as it took federal action to build the Grand Coulee Dam. But the lion’s share of the estimated $350 billion it will take for universal broadband will have to come from the private sector, which is already investing tens of billions per year. Government cannot afford that kind of expenditure, and until the regulatory status of broadband is settled in a favorable manner, the broadband providers cannot be expected to obligate these sums.
For everyone, in all parts of Washington state and all parts of the country, Congress should pass a law this year to put the open internet on a secure legal footing, settle the debate about the internet’s regulatory status and ensure strong privacy protections for consumers. It’s the best way forward for our broadband future.
Rick Boucher was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing a district in Virginia for 28 years. He is currently the honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and head of the government strategies practice at the law firm Sidley Austin.
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