Mobile Future

Staying the Course: Why Democrats and Progressives Should Reject Efforts to Over-Regulate the Internet

Nineteen summers ago, White House policymakers, Congress and the FCC were in the final phases of rallying together behind a ‘light-touch’ regulatory framework for the rapidly evolving U.S. communications market.  The resulting Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed with substantial bipartisan support. I was proud to serve in the Clinton-Gore White House at that time and bear witness to the birth of the policy framework that helped set the course for the open, dynamic Internet we all benefit from today.

This ‘light touch’ approach helped spark a nearly 20-year run of profound innovation, vibrant competition,  economic growth, and job creation in one of the fastest growing sectors in our nation. But today, fueled by unfounded fears that the open Internet we enjoy somehow might go off the rails, this ‘light-touch’ framework is being spurned by some of my Democratic colleagues.  At its core, however, this approach established smart, thoughtful, pro-consumer and bipartisan innovation policies that were crafted with the wisdom and humility to appreciate that technology and consumer needs evolve in the blink of an eye, while regulations do not.

And if given a chance, it will continue to do so.

This ‘light-touch’ approach remains not only fully compatible with an open and dynamic Internet, but it has proven itself the most efficient and effective way to safeguard net neutrality, protect online freedom and speed innovation.  In fact, as broadband and mobile have flourished, not a single formal complaint has been filed with the Federal Communications Commission alleging a violation of the Open Internet rules since it formally adopted those rules in 2010.

Democrats should be proud of their role shaping this policy success story.  Our most innovative product developers in places like Silicon Valley have found wisdom in the design concept known as Minimal Viable Product, which values restraint, economy and simplicity.  These same characteristics can be found in the design principles of the 1996 Telecom Act itself.  Yet some are now pushing the regressive idea of abandoning these principles and turning the most important invention of our lifetime, the Internet, into the regulatory equivalent of a public utility.

This would be a huge reversal of fortune for the Internet, our innovation economy and the consumer broadband experience, particularly in mobile.  Nevertheless, as we know, there are those who are urging the FCC to radically expand its Internet regulations, going so far as to contemplate ensnaring mobile networks in all of these additional regulations as well.

Since 1993, when another Democrat-led, bipartisan effort resulted in a light touch regulatory framework for mobile, wireless has rapidly evolved from brick-sized phones for the Gordon Gekko elite to the versatile handheld supercomputers for everyone.  The wisdom of the ‘light-touch’ approach has only become more apparent with time. Over the past four years, total mobile data on wireless networks has increased more than seven-fold.  This is no surprise when you consider that mobile subscriptions outnumber people in our country, and the Internet of Things ultimately will connect most of the objects around us—from cars to classrooms, home appliances to hospitals.

In racing to adapt, mobile network engineers need every tool at their disposal to stay ahead of this exponentially rising demand, including having the flexibility to make logical and dynamic decisions that maximize the mobile Internet’s capabilities for everyone.

From the intricacies of maintaining service for customers on the move to the unpredictability of how many users might be sharing photos and video off a particular cell tower at a specific time on a particular spectrum band, wireless network management is a vastly more complex and dynamic animal than its wired counterpart.

A one-size-fits-all regulatory approach to all networks – both fixed and wireless – would be pure technical folly, and it would deliver the most anti-consumer outcome possible—an Internet experience significantly impaired in its ability to expand, adapt and innovate in an intelligent and organized way.

This is not a hypothesis for lawyers to debate. These are questions of engineering, of physics, and of basic science. They can’t be solved by sound bites.  Wireless innovators are taking an ‘every arrow in the quiver’ approach to manage networks and meet growing demand.  Washington now must determine if it will help or hinder this mission-critical work.

The ‘light-touch’ approach to innovation policy remains in the best traditions of Democratic principles.  Congress’s actions in 1993 and again in 1996 are shining examples of how U.S. policy has helped make America the innovation envy of the world. It would be a self-defeating act of historical amnesia for Democrats to reverse course now and sweep our still evolving Internet ecosystem under the suffocating blanket of public utility-style regulation.

Lest we forget, this is precisely the path the French government chose to follow back in the 1990s when it over-regulated, and thereby doomed to failure the country’s once wildly popular precursor to the Internet, the Minitel.  Now shut-down, the University of Southern California’s Minitel Research Lab has been seeking to create a museum in its memory as a dark reminder of what can happen when policymakers peremptorily substitute their own judgment on the proper path for technology innovation for that of consumers.

Democrats need not be fearful of the principles that have been proven to work for consumers, innovators and our economy.  We were at the vanguard of this groundbreaking approach.  It was our smart policies that in part helped give rise to the smartphones the world now enjoys.  We should continue to embrace this extraordinary legacy, not run away from it.  The success of these principles is self-evident in the real-world Internet experience we all enjoy today.  We should be proud of this precedent, the progress it has delivered, and the potential it holds – if we have the courage and the confidence to stay the course.