Should the Internet be a utility?
Until recently, the Internet has been a bipartisan project. When the first set of rules overseeing the Internet were signed into law in 1996, senators and representatives of both parties came together to adopt a durable framework that allowed broadband to flourish through the following decades. As a former senator, I was proud to work with my colleagues in ensuing years to ensure the continued growth of the Internet — and later, of high-speed broadband.
But now this bipartisanship — and the Internet’s future — is in jeopardy. Many are calling for new regulations that would place strict limits on broadband, threatening to curtail the competition and innovation that have given us a thriving national broadband network.
Recently, a Senate field hearing in Burlington examined these issues. Members of the panel were urged strongly to consider the implications of regulation on the Internet in their discussion. Public officials would be wise to promote the light touch regulatory approach to the Internet that has served our country so well.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996, put in place more than 18 years ago and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, brought forth unparalleled investment, jobs, innovation and competition. Yet in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission’s consideration to change current regulations, some interest groups have called for sweeping changes to start treating the Internet as a public utility. They want to reclassify Internet providers as monopoly-era telecommunications carriers.
Going down this path would be a mistake. These depression-era regulations, set out in the Communications Act of 1934, were traditionally applied to rotary phones and have nothing to do with how today’s Internet works.
Today’s Internet ecosystem is highly competitive. Emerging companies, platforms and services are disrupting, competing, and collaborating with each other to continually enhance the consumer’s Internet experience. Internet providers compete in dynamic new ways through fiber optic, cable, satellite, fixed and wireless networks.
By all accounts, the Internet has thrived today on account of light regulation. America’s broadband providers have invested $1.2 trillion since 1996 to develop our infrastructure, giving 85 percent of American households access to networks capable of 100 megabits per second or higher. And Internet speeds continue to grow exponentially, with Akamai recently finding that the average broadband speed increased 25 percent between 2012 and 2013.
America’s robust Internet infrastructure has also led to remarkable job creation, with nearly 11 million jobs today supported by broadband and an app economy that employs more than 750,000 Americans — up from zero in 2007.
There is no evidence that regulation contributed to this extraordinary progress.
In fact, public utility regulation has hindered progress in other areas of essential infrastructure: One in three of America’s roads suffer from poor conditions and the Federal Highway Administration has estimated that $170 billion of investment is necessary per year to fix these roads. The electric grid in America has experienced increasing blackouts per year — 307 in 2011 — and needs $768 billion by 2020 to avoid failure. Water main breaks occur 240,000 times per year and this service would require $1 trillion in investment to fix this problem.
We cannot permit the same problems to befall the Internet. To be sure, the FCC has important tasks ahead such as improving Internet adoption and strengthening digital literacy. Stepping out of this mission, however, and expanding into public utility regulation will only deprive millions of Americans of the world class Internet they enjoy today.
John E. Sununu is a former member of the U.S. Senate from New Hampshire and honorary co-chairman of Broadband for America.