Jonathan Spalter

Net Neutrality Is Dead, Long Live Net Neutrality

An op-ed by USTelecom CEO Jonathan Spalter. This was originally published in The Daily Caller.

It’s understandable that consumers are confused and concerned by the net neutrality news out of Washington over the past few weeks. Skim the headlines and we are told that the Federal Communications Commission plans to “scuttle,” “roll back” and “completely dismantle” its open internet regulations. While the statement is true, it’s hardly the entire picture of an action that will deliver wholly positive and long overdue progress for consumers and our innovation economy.

Now that I’ve likely ignited the Twitter-verse with such a contrarian statement, allow me a moment to move past the soundbites to explain. The Federal Communications Commission’s actions to extract itself from net neutrality enforcement clears a path for one set of uniform and consistent protections that consumers can count on across the entire internet. Specifically, the FCC is making way for a new sheriff — the Federal Trade Commission, the nation’s leading consumer protection agency, which already is charged with policing the rest of the internet.

Consumers’ open internet protections — no blocking, no throttling, no slow lanes — will remain alive and well. Internet service providers have pledged to uphold these principles. This gives the FTC clear authority to penalize any action they take to undercut these vows, since such a violation would amount to deceptive market practices.

Jettisoning FCC regulations originally crafted in 1934 to govern rotary phones — rules that could not possibly have envisioned today’s vast internet ecosystem — in favor of modern enforcement has the added benefit of roping in today’s dominant online players. the so-called ‘big five’ of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. These companies are wholly outside the current FCC framework.  And, from the Russian advertising scandal on Facebook to news that Google tracks Android users’ whereabouts even if they disable location-based services, it is clear ISPs hardly have a monopoly on potential bad behavior.

Most important, a modern net neutrality enforcement framework that is even-handed across the internet will help reignite the vigorous network infrastructure investment needed to maintain our nation’s competitive edge in the global information economy. It also moves us closer to achieving the elusive goal of connecting all Americans to broadband’s myriad life-transforming opportunities— FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s top priority.

When the prior FCC leadership sent regulation of consumers’ broadband services back to the stone age by imposing 1930s-era rules, even proponents of this radical act openly characterized it as ‘the nuclear option.’ It would be hugely positive for the country to see the effects of this detonation rolled back.

Since 1996, broadband providers have been among the leading investors in the U.S. economy, putting more than $1.6 trillion of their own capital on the line to upgrade and expand the nation’s digital infrastructure. It doesn’t take an economist to understand that subjecting ISPs to regulations written for a world of outhouses rather than smart houses is hardly helpful to the cause of universal broadband. So the FCC’s actions to right this wrong are wholly consistent with the current emphasis among Washington policymakers of both parties to pursue modern policies and funding to advance the nation’s infrastructure — including the modern digital infrastructure of ones and zeroes.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than in rural America, which has the most to gain from modern, equitable rules. Greater broadband infrastructure funding — both public and private — is urgently needed in remote areas where the cost of connectivity infrastructure remains extreme. This week, I am in Alaska where more than 200 communities have zero road access. People in these places rely on float planes, snow mobiles and broadband as their lifelines.

FCC Chairman Pai should be applauded for this extraordinary show of regulatory humility.  Ceding turf to another government agency is a rarity on par with the Hope diamond. But in pressing this urgently needed course of action — despite the jabs of late-night comedians and various interest groups — he is paving the way for consistent consumer protections and a greater focus at the commission on the critical, unfinished work of connecting rural America and advancing world-class broadband throughout our nation.

If the FCC is successful in its efforts to reset the regulatory clock from 1934 to modern times, consumers’ online protections will only grow stronger. To borrow a well-worn phrase from various monarchies: Net neutrality is dead (at the FCC), long live net neutrality (at the FTC). The transition to a single, modern regime that can protect consumers across the online universe is an historic milestone on the road to a connected, broadband future that works for each and every one of us. Contrary to the scare-mongering headlines, this progress is something for all of us to be thankful for indeed.