Net neutrality debates can devolve quickly into talk of statutory “titles” and legal jargon. When that happens, the practical issues at the heart of these debates can get lost. Throughout all this, however, the nation’s rural broadband providers have focused on one primary and practical concern: the chaos that could ensue in the absence of any “rules of the road” with respect to how rural America connects with the rest of the world.
Where does this concern come from? Why would rural America be particularly at risk without basic rules of the road? Well, we’ve seen this play out before in the traditional telecom context. Over the past decade, telephone calls destined for consumers and businesses in rural America have failed all too often because it wasn’t worth the time, effort or cost for some routers to make sure calls complete.
I shudder to think what would have happened if the Federal Communications Commission lacked authority to address these concerns when consumers began reporting them years ago. Fortunately, the FCC had the authority in that context to adopt and enforce rules to make sure data flows across networks without interruption, delay or neglect. Carrying that now to a broadband environment, what would happen if a video content provider decided it’s too much trouble to deliver data to rural markets? What would happen if a transit provider decided it’s too costly to connect rural America? If such events occur and there’s no public policy backstop, how will rural America stay connected to the rest of the world?
Whatever title of law you use, basic public policy requires that reliable communications must be available to all Americans. In recent chapters of the ongoing net neutrality debate, NTCA had viewed Title II (traditional telecom regulation) as a practical means to this end. In particular, Title II offered greater regulatory certainty on issues of importance to rural consumers like interconnection and universal service. But we were in favor of a very different flavor of Title II-based rules than what were ultimately imposed. The light-touch regulatory backstop we called for was a far cry from the regime that flowed from reclassification of broadband as a common carrier service. Instead of much-needed basic rules of the road, we saw a one-sided interconnection duty in favor of certain favored segments and heavier-handed retail broadband regulation. This was not the Title II we were looking for.
Whatever title the country lands on in this latest spin of the net neutrality wheel, we cannot abandon rules altogether. There’s a balance to be struck. We must focus on the practical goals and substantive outcomes of this debate: making sure that universal service is sustained and that there’s recourse if small rural providers and their customers are shut out or face massive new and unreasonable costs in today’s and tomorrow’s connected world. As long as practical goals like these remain firmly in the headlights, and as long as the framework adopted is legally sustainable, the exact vehicle we use to get there is of secondary importance.
Shirley Bloomfield is chief executive officer of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association.
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