About three months into the coronavirus shutdown, one thing has become clear: The internet is holding our nation together.
From video calls that salve our social isolation, remote learning from our local schools, or e-commerce that safely brings us the essentials, we have come to appreciate, more than ever before, just how vital internet connectivity is to every American and every business.
America’s broadband networks have risen to the occasion and shown they were more than up to the task. SamKnows, the respected benchmark for broadband speed measurement, reports that while local broadband networks have been carrying 34% more traffic since the pandemic began, average download speeds in most states have only declined about 1%.
Some don’t want to accept the fact that broadband companies have delivered as promised. They spin flawed data to create a false narrative of networks in crisis for partisan political reasons. Nearly 25 years after the last major revision to our telecommunications laws, there are still constant battles about individual policies in the law.
Meanwhile, our nation fails to focus clearly and definitively on the best ways to close the broadband connection gap in those rural communities that don’t have broadband access available, and for Americans that lack affordable ways to buy it. We need to abandon old debates and embrace a 21st century communications policy that recognizes the reality of the reach and resiliency of American broadband networks.
Accept that the internet actually is special.The internet is the first communications technology largely developed in a decentralized manner without government direction or direct regulatory oversight. It has had the freedom to evolve into the extraordinary, decentralized and unprecedented network of networks that we enjoy today.
Arguments that would shoehorn the internet into a legal framework that looks and smells like old-fashioned regulation — like common carrier rules — should be abandoned. Recognizing that the internet is a fundamentally different organism is the first step toward an enabling environment that produces the investment incentives needed to reach universal connectivity.
Acknowledge that access to the internet is essential to 21st century citizenship. Whether you are an urban professional, a rural small business owner, a student or a retiree, your life has been changed by the internet. Those who lack access are not only at an economic disadvantage; they risk being shut out of society as news and community engagement increasingly move online.
Connecting every American to the internet ensures the continued vitality of our society and the human network. One place to start is overhauling the Federal Communication Commission’s Lifeline program, which subsidizes broadband connectivity for low-income Americans.
Build on the success of facilities-based competition. The internet is essential, but it is not a utility. There is a quantifiable benefit to having multiple physical networks competing for broadband customers.
In other parts of the world, line-sharing for network competitors and price controls have been put at the center of network policy, and it has put a damper on investment in facilities. It substitutes short-term consumer happiness (a regulated price) over long-term consumer benefits (more choice and innovation). American broadband’s success is built on the foundation of competing networks because consumers benefit the most that way.
Recognize that a pro-investment strategy requires the alignment of incentives. For some areas of the country, the economics of deploying broadband leave consumers behind. If we want the private sector to continue to deploy broadband networks in these areas, we will have to bend the curve on the economic proposition. That means embracing additional policies that lower barriers to entry, such as technology-neutral broadband subsidies, and abandoning patronage politics that favor some vendors and treat communications companies as tax-and-fee cash cows.
Old policy fights die hard. And long-held beliefs are hard to relinquish. But if we want to move forward as a country connected by the network of networks that the United States pioneered, this framework will help us do it together.
David Redl is the former administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and a senior fellow at Silicon Flatirons at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
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