The Hill: Congress, not the FCC, should set Internet policy

Originally published in The Hill, February 2nd, 2014

Today, Americans access broadband Internet almost everywhere. We are using it to talk, view, tweet, post and pin at home, at work, in our cars and on the move. 

As much as broadband is changing the way we live, it also challenges the decades-old assumptions behind the regulation of communications networks in the United States.

For years, the federal government regulated telecommunications providers as if confining them to lanes on a racetrack: one lane for traditional telephone service, another for wireless and yet another for cable. Each lane was assigned different rules by the government because it came along at a different time, operated with a different business model and utilized service-specific technologies. 

This system of rules worked reasonably well until broadband Internet turned those old business models on their heads.

Services that once required dedicated networks today ride “over the top” of any network — whether operated by a phone, wireless or cable company. While the services riding on top of the networks are generally unregulated, the underlying network providers are still governed differently depending on the lane they were assigned years ago. 

Recognizing this, committee chairmen in both the Senate and House of Representatives have intimated that we will begin looking at reforming the entire body of communications law. 

We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the start of this long overdue discussion.

As we begin this conversation, policymakers must keep in mind that the world has changed dramatically since 1996, when the Telecommunications Act was last updated. The old assumptions that led previous generations of legislators to confine each communications service within its own regulatory lane are simply no longer true.

If we were to double down on this “regulate first” mentality of the 20th century, it could eventually force the Internet to become a heavily regulated public commodity like electricity and water. And just like power and water utilities have not changed or innovated in decades, today’s Internet would become stagnant rather than remain vibrant. 

Attempting to force obsolete assumptions and antiquated regulatory models on a dynamic and competitive industry fails to recognize that the world has changed. And it has changed for the better — not because of regulation, but in spite of it.

The video market is proof that less regulation and more freedom to innovate offers the most benefits to consumers.

Today, consumers have more viewing choices than ever before. Because of the freedom to negotiate without government regulation, more than 900 channels of cable programming and innumerable online video outlets are now available. 

Because government scaled back regulation, cable companies offer voice services that compete with local telephone companies and telephone companies offer competing video services. 

And because the government has not created a regulatory Internet lane, an online streaming video rental company has become the most subscribed to video service in America.

All of this makes one fact clear: a freer marketplace, not more regulation, promotes innovation and competition, and innovation and competition empower consumers by increasing the choices they have, be it for voice services, video content or the next breakthrough application. 

Unfortunately, some would still have people believe that the only way to provide real consumer choice is to have the federal government dictating how consumers are offered services and what those services might be. This approach is born from the mindset that regulations beget innovation and that bureaucrats in the government, not entrepreneurship, create competition. 

Instead of employing a knee-jerk regulatory prescription, the principle that should guide the debate over updating our communications laws is to empower consumers by promoting robust competition in the broad Internet sphere. 

This approach would encourage new participants, not limit them. It would reward innovation and drive more investment in content and infrastructure, creating jobs and economic growth. It would also ensure consumers are adequately protected from demonstrated market failures, rather than hypothetical ones.

The discussion to update the next generation of telecommunications laws has begun, and it is full of possibilities for our constituents. We owe them an honest debate that recognizes the competitive realities of today, and we can foster that competition by wiping away regulatory lanes, not reinforcing them. 

By: Dean Heller, Ron Johnson and Kelly Ayotte