Mar 2, 2017

Save the internet, skip Title II

Everyone in this country passionately supports an open internet. Free speech — online and off — is at the center of our democratic way of life. For this reason, Americans have always enjoyed an open internet — long before regulators decided they had to "save the internet" by turning it into a utility.

In many respects, the so-called Title II debate reflects everything voters most resent about Washington: Fear-mongering, Armageddon-style arguments with a dubious connection to the facts.

The central fact of this debate is its true subject: This policy battle is not about whether we safeguard an open internet. It's about how we go about doing so.

Title II regulations were written in the rotary phone era. They were put on the books when FDR was president and Frank Capra's black-and-white classic "It Happened One Night" clearly and without any confusion won Best Picture at the 1934 Academy Awards.

The application of these retro rules to our modern internet is the policy equivalent of using a sledgehammer to deal with a mosquito on your arm. Technically, it may get the job done. But everything breaks in the process.

Among the collateral damage: Investment in ever stronger, faster and more capable broadband networks. As FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has noted, last year saw the first dip in private-sector broadband investment outside of a recession. Unlike other essential national infrastructure, U.S. broadband networks are built on private investment—more than $1.1 trillion and counting over the past 15 years. Abruptly shifting gears to a nearly century-old regulatory regime caused these essential investments to slow at a time when U.S. competitiveness demands they speed ahead.

While consumer groups aggressively fundraise to "Save the Internet," they are actively working against some of the most wildly popular consumer innovations. It doesn't take a poll to know that consumers love free and discounted services, and it doesn't take an economist to understand that the more low- and no-cost services are available the closer we get to our nation's other collective goal — seeing all Americans connect to more broadband opportunities. Yet Title II, at least according to its champions, would block broadband providers from offering free and discounted customer services, such as streaming of video or music content without wireless data charges.

I hear all the time about how consumers feel about their internet service. It's not all good. It's not all bad. But not once has someone said: I wish my internet company behaved more like the gas company.

There is a better, cleaner and more straightforward path to the outcome we all want to achieve.

If we don't want to continue what our nation has long enjoyed — an open, innovating, strong, dynamic, pro-consumer internet, then by all means let's keep Title II. But if we do want to advance the opportunities the internet brings to our economy, nation and consumers — and keep the progress and investment coming—then it's high time we embrace a more constructive path forward.

Jonathan Spalter is President and CEO of USTelecom.

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