The promise of high-speed Internet access for women, people of color, and other historically disadvantaged communities has always been its ability to empower everyone, regardless of demography or geography, with the opportunity to excel, to build something of their own and prosper on the merits. However, a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to impose new, poorly thought out regulations on how we go online jeopardizes these many opportunities.
For many years, the FCC kept its regulatory hand mostly off of broadband Internet access. The rationale was that this dynamic service needed room to grow and mature without being held back by government. This was a decidedly bipartisan and noncontroversial approach that was forged during the Clinton presidency and that continued for nearly two decades. The many successes of this approach can be seen in all of the good things we benefit from every day online. The vast majority of Americans have ready access to several broadband providers. The ways in which we connect — on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone — and the terms on which we connect have also evolved and expanded greatly, reflecting the robust competitiveness that has long been evident throughout this space.
In many ways, the market has been remarkably responsive to our needs — we were paying less for more, we had a menu of options for going online, and once online, we were free to do as we pleased. These conditions stoked the inherent entrepreneurialism in people of color and women, providing millions with a convenient and affordable means of building a business or launching a new career.
The challenges have been in winning universal broadband adoption. Far too many African Americans, Hispanics, and low-income families remain unconnected to broadband. Many don’t see the value in going online; others simply don’t have the skills to put their connections to use.
The FCC’s new rules won’t help to address these challenges. In fact, the new rules will probably compound them. And they threaten to undo the enormous progress that people of color and women have made in using broadband to break free from the many societal constraints that have long held them back. There is significant concern that the new rules, which regulate broadband in a manner similar to the way that basic telephone was treated a century ago, will depress investment and jobs in broadband networks. That would be a terrible outcome, one that would have a disproportionately negative impact on the communities that stand poised to benefit the most from high-speed connectivity. It’s especially troubling that a slowdown in wireless broadband deployment, which is a distinct possibility under the new rules, will be felt first and most profoundly by African Americans and Hispanics, the two groups that depend on mobile Internet connectivity the most.
The new rules also create uncertainty about the extent to which entrepreneurs can experiment with new business models and otherwise engage in commercial relationships with other innovators in this space. Many have questioned the wisdom of adopting regulations that cast even the slightest shadow of doubt over the vibrant innovative spirit that has characterized the broadband market for years. The costs associated with navigating and complying with the maze of new regulations impacting firms in this space will be especially heavy — and perhaps even prohibitive — for the many new online businesses that are owned and operated by people of color and women.
However, there is a ray of hope brewing on Capitol Hill in the form of federal legislation. Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield recently expressed the need for Congress to create sound broadband policy to protect and preserve the Internet. Congressman Butterfield’s approach will provide the certainty we need to foster economic opportunities.
There is little disagreement over the value of preserving Internet openness. But in reclassifying broadband as a public utility, the FCC has taken a step in the wrong direction. It is time for Congress to step in and sort things out. It must provide the FCC – and the American public – with a clearer path forward, one that does not suffocate investment, innovation, jobs, and broadband adoption. It’s a shame that unless Congress moves in, the courts, rather than innovators or consumers, will dictate the pace of progress and opportunity for all in broadband.