Opinion

Don’t Play Politics With the Internet

This year, broadband companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon will spend about $75 billion expanding and improving America’s broadband networks. Meanwhile, companies operating on those broadband networks (big ones, like Microsoft, and small ones, like telehealth startups) will invest tens of billions more.

 That’s more than the federal government spends on our roads, rails, and mass transit — and it shows. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s infrastructure a D+One in 10 bridges is structurally deficient. One in five miles of highway is in poor condition. We’re $42 billion behind in airport repairs.

 Everyone agrees we need to invest more in our infrastructure, but partisanship and brinkmanship get in the way. We can’t let them do the same to broadband.

The best way to ensure an open and vital internet is to prevent network operators from favoring internet traffic from some sites over others, censoring viewpoints, or favoring their own web offerings. This principal, net neutrality, encourages companies to keep to investing in distance learning, telemedicine, media streaming, and other new, data-intensive businesses.

The Federal Communications Commission began promoting net neutrality 15 years ago. Four successive FCC chairs, serving two presidents, issued net neutrality principles, policies or rules. But federal courts or subsequent FCC orders struck down each of them.

It’s Congress’ job to create or authorize net neutrality rules; the FCC can’t invent them. Kevin Martin, FCC chair under George W. Bush, issued a “policy statement” that was found unenforceable. Julius Genachowski, FCC chair under Barack Obama, issued formal regulations that were overturned because he lacked authority from Congress.

When Congress still could not agree on a bill, Tom Wheeler, Obama’s second FCC chair, proposed a workaround. Lacking congressional authority over broadband as an “information service,” Wheeler reclassified it as a “telecommunications service,” a distinction that gave the FCC greater authority to regulate.

But reclassifying broadband — Obama’s Plan B approach — had unintended consequences. It would allow the FCC to set broadband prices or demand broadband companies share their transmission lines with competitors.

Before courts could judge Wheeler’s approach, Ajit Pai, Donald Trump’s FCC chair, overturned it. In doing so, Pai voided the net neutrality principles that his four predecessors had supported.

Today, despite broad public support for net neutrality and efforts by two presidents and four successive chairs, we have no protections in place. Just like we have no new major infrastructure bill.

I’m glad House Democrats have introduced new net neutrality legislation. We need it. But we also need to meet in the middle and find a workable solution.

I’ve organized hundreds of briefings on technology issues with business leaders across the country. Net neutrality supporters are asking to “go back to Obama’s rules.”

The question is simple: back to which Obama rules? Plan A, under Genachowski, enjoyed broad support when it was enacted and might attract enough Republican votes to pass Congress. Plan B, under Wheeler, enjoys support from many Democrats, but would trigger a filibuster from Republicans and a likely veto from Trump.

Plan B has a second drawback: The broad powers reclassifying broadband gives the FCC means uncertainty for businesses. Over time, this will hurt investment in broadband infrastructure and hurt our long-term economic competitiveness.

On the right are a group of Republicans opposed to net neutrality rules altogether. On the left are a group of Democrats calling for heightened Title II “utility” oversight.

In the middle are members of both Parties who are prepared to support net neutrality while protecting broadband investment. This approach, Obama’s Plan A, could have the support needed to actually pass. 

We need members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to come together to truly “save the internet.” Why risk leaving the open internet at risk for years when there’s a way to secure net neutrality protections now? Why put $75 billion in annual broadband infrastructure investments at risk? Why subject our broadband networks to the same politics destroying our roads, rails, and mass transit?

Jim Doyle is president of Business Forward, a bipartisan network of more than 100,000 civic-minded entrepreneurs, investors, small business owners, and executives working to end gridlock in Washington.

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