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The scope of the net neutrality debate has narrowed substantially. All sides continue to strongly support consumers’ right to be in control of their online experience. All sides also agree government should have the authority to enforce these protections.
The holdup? Some consumer groups continue to cry foul, insisting that net neutrality rules can only be achieved by abruptly shoving U.S. broadband service into a time machine and imposing utility-style regulations written in 1934.
It’s a leap, to say the least.
Written in the year the United States ended prohibition, these carbon-dated rules were crafted for a world of rotary telephones. If you “dialed up” in 1934, you likely joined a community party line to talk to your neighbors. Mention your “broadband,” and you’d likely get a sidelong glance for your inartful reference to a group of female musicians—wholly unacceptable in the modern world.
Fortunately, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed modern net neutrality safeguards to replace these regressive rules. And, it’s forcing some sunshine into the debate. What’s the true end game? Title II “is not really about net neutrality: It’s about whether or not internet access is a utility,” wrote leading Title II purist Susan Crawford last week.
And, there it is.
It’s a jaw-dropping admission given internet service providers are the leading investors in the U.S. economy, and semi-nationalizing their networks would be a surefire way to undercut this essential infrastructure progress. Indeed, 84 percent of all investment in the internet comes from broadband providers—as do 900,000 American jobs.
We know these choices have consequences. When the internet first emerged, European governments immediately struck a more regulatory posture than the United States. The result? Year over year, investment in U.S. internet infrastructure beat out Europe on a per household basis by a 2:1 margin. The lasting impact of that early policy misstep continues to be felt today. Many in Europe still struggle with slower speeds and more limited deployment of state-of-the-art network infrastructure, while the United States remains the undisputed innovation center of the world.
As the head of a broadband trade association, I hear all the time from consumers about how they feel about their internet service—some good, some less good. But I have yet to hear anyone say, “I wish my internet service provider was more like my gas company.”
The truth is: Our internet was open, dynamic and growing before the Title II disruption, and it will remain so after. Those who say there’s only one true path to net neutrality need to join the rest of us in the real world where heavy-handed, archaic policies have zero shot at being as quick, nimble, smart, adaptive and transformative as the dynamic and transformative technology they seek to manage.
Fortunately, there’s a far more efficient way to “get to yes.” Straightforward, enforceable, modern rules that do just what they say they will—maintain an open internet, while leveling the playing field so all online competitors have a fair shot and equal treatment. This is precisely where Pai is steering the ship—to a pro-consumer, pro-innovation conclusion.
There is near-universal support for enforceable open internet safeguards. There is no such mandate to regulate U.S. internet infrastructure back to the Stone Age. These are two very different debates that must be kept distinct. Title II can’t deliver a modern, thriving and open internet. Pai’s more surgical approach likely can. It’s time to take the clean and clear win.
Jonathan Spalter is president and CEO of USTelecom.
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