A Decisive Moment for Broadband Internet Access

At what point does persistence turn into malfeasance? That is the question we should be asking of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent federal agency that has spent much of the last year considering various regulatory schemes for broadband Internet access.

Proposed "network neutrality" rules put forward by the FCC to govern broadband service providers, along with an attempt to reclassify broadband as akin, from a regulatory standpoint, to basic telephone service, has provoked an all-out lobbying war in D.C., one that has been played out among service providers on one side and high tech companies on the other. In nearly any other circumstance, this war of words and the brinksmanship it has engendered could be cast as nothing more than business as usual inside the Beltway. But at this point in the evolution of broadband, there is too much at stake to dismiss these deliberations as the esoteric machinations of D.C. operatives.

How we regulate and use broadband is essential not only to spurring an economic revival in this country, but also to empowering individual users with the ability to participate in the global marketplace of ideas. To these ends, the FCC spent much of last year pulling together a National Broadband Plan to guide the country's transition to a fully digital society. The FCC's Plan, which was released in March of this year to much fanfare, articulated an inspiring and bold vision for how broadband should be used to position the U.S. for continued prosperity.

Equally as important were the FCC's efforts to identify the many barriers to more robust adoption and use of the technology by all Americans, including African Americans, Hispanics, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. With all of this information in hand, the path forward seemed clear. Unfortunately, the Commission, by placing its highest priority on net neutrality rules and attempting to reclassify broadband service, has taken the American people on a costly detour.

In recently filed FCC comments prepared by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), a group of 24 leading national civil rights and policymaker organizations - including the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, Japanese American Citizens League, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), NAACP, National Black Caucus of State Legislators, National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women, and Organization of Chinese Americans - called upon the FCC to refocus its limited resources on the most pressing issue at hand: bolstering broadband access, adoption and informed use of broadband services among under-adopting groups, particularly minorities and women. These comments came in response to the FCC's request for additional input on issues related to its broadband reclassification proceeding (an initial request for comment was released earlier in the year).

That the FCC asked for additional input signals uncertainty at the Commission - uncertainty over how to craft rules that attempt to govern services that evolve dramatically almost daily. In their comments, the National Organizations urge the FCC to weigh any perceived benefit of implementing new rules for broadband against the potential negative impact they might have on users, particularly minorities, women, and small disadvantaged businesses. The comments underscore the likely harms that will result from adopting rigid rules for a dynamic service like broadband: investment in new networks could slow, hundreds of thousands of jobs could be lost, the innovative spirit that has driven the sector to date could be dampened, and, most critically of all, the digital divide separating broadband adopters from non-adopters could expand to a yawning chasm.

The likelihood that these ills could befall the broadband sector is real. History teaches us that burdening a dynamic sector like the modern communications space with rigid rules that do not accommodate disruptive innovations is dangerous and not in the best interests of the consumers. Rather than settling for a costly pyrrhic victory on these issues, the Commission should heed the call of the National Organizations - and countless others - to defer any necessary regulatory fixes to Congress and instead focus on addressing the issues of most immediate importance.

To spur broadband access, adoption and informed use, all that is needed is a commitment from the FCC to move forward with the recommendations outlined in the National Broadband Plan. In addition, the FCC should divert some of the resources currently consumed by the net neutrality and reclassification proceedings to address - after years of delay - the array of stagnating dockets related to minority media and telecom ownership and participation.

The National Organizations conclude their filing with a succinct call to action for the FCC: "...the Commission [should] remain mindful that any new rules or regulatory structures that emerge... should help to close the digital divide and spread the economic and social benefits of broadband adoption to minority communities." This is the issue that should be commanding the attention, money, and energy of stakeholders across the sector: ensuring that as many people as possible are able to access, adopt and effectively use broadband.

Without the FCC leading the way on this issue, progress will be fragmented and millions of Americans, including untold numbers of Blacks, Hispanics, women, senior citizens, and people with disabilities, will be in jeopardy of being left on the analog side of the digital divide. Now is the time for the FCC to get back on track.