The legal battle over the Federal Communications Commission’s Internet regulations is the culmination of the agency’s 20-year-old ambition to turn the Internet into the telephone network. By imposing Title II of the Communications Act – previously reserved for the voice-only landline telephone network – on Internet networks, the FCC’s order saddles cutting-edge broadband networks with rules signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1934. This attempt to limit the future of communication to rules devised before the invention of the transistor or computers must be stopped.
For as long as the FCC has been trying to impose these rules on the Internet, the engineers who actually conceived of and built the Internet have been trying to fight them. The arrival of VoIP calling with VocalTec’s Internet Phone in February 1995 generated the first appeals to impose Title II rules on the Internet. But for over 20 years, cooler heads prevailed.
Unfortunately, current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has decided to reverse the decades of decisions and declare a right to regulate the Internet because it is “the dominant means of communication by wire and radio in the 21st Century.”
This chilling bureaucratic logic threatens the communication future for the same reasons today as when first asserted in 1995. Pause to consider the FCC’s regulatory track record. Twenty years ago, the equivalent of the presently routine 4G LTE smart phone connection to the Internet cost $10,000 per month. A concept known as “long distance” metered voice calls as a function of both time and destination according to a city-by-city pricing regime demanding $0.25 per minute – and more than $1 per minute for international calling. Communication alternatives involved a trip to the post office or, in extreme cases, a travel agent.
The benefits of minimizing FCC intervention in the broadband market are clear. When the Clinton administration created the non-regulated communication alternative to the telephone network, the Internet’s national backbone speeds were a then-incredible 45Mbps – a speed now considered routine for consumer access (and the present backbone network operates 100Gbs connections). The non-regulation strategy from 1995 to early 2015 led the nation’s ISPs to spend over a trillion dollars building out the Internet infrastructure. Leaving the Internet beyond the reach of the FCC led to 1,000-fold expansion of communication value over 20 years. Elsewhere in the economy, prices soared and quality floundered— just look at the healthcare, insurance and education industries during the same time period.
The dismal track record of telephone network stewardship by the Federal Communications Commission was obvious in 1995, and is self-evident in 2015. Yet, the fact that customers are leaving the circuit-switched telephone network in droves does not dissuade Chairman Wheeler from pursuing mandates designed to turn the Internet into the telephone network. None of the 1,000-plus lawyers roaming the halls at the FCC seems bothered either. The fact that the telephone network user experience and voice quality has not improved during the 80-year period of FCC management remains overlooked in the rush to grant the FCC powers of Internet regulation.
The benefits of excluding the FCC from regulating the Internet over the last 20 years transformed telecommunications from the most dismal, static sector in the country to the most dynamic. The Commission can point to multiple decades of deliberations around the merit of preserving the non-regulatory status of information services, but claiming credit for leaving something untouched represents the type of victory only a government bureaucracy recognizes.
To the extent the FCC successfully defends its plan to turn the Internet into the telephone network, the 20-year-old communication miracle will end.
Daniel Berninger is the convener of the Tech Innovators, a coalition of individuals who helped build the Internet, including Bob Metcalfe, Bryan Martin, Charlie Giancarlo, Dave Farber, George Gilder, Jeff Pulver, John Gilmore, John Perry Barlow, Les Vadasz, Mark Cuban, Michael Robertson, Ray Ozzie, Tom Evslin and Tim Draper.