Working at Odds: The Dichotomy of the President's Internet Policy

Last month the White House announced the ConnectAll initiative, a laudable plan to bring 20 million more Americans online over the next four years. "In today's economy, the Internet isn't a luxury - it's a necessity," President Obama said in a Facebook post. "That's why we're doing everything we can to help more students and families get connected and get ahead."

That's sound logic. Everything from homework to home appliances is quickly becoming connected to, and accessible through, the mobile Internet. Those who aren't able to get online are getting left in the dust--whether it's in school, in finding work, or, as I've written before, in helping to shape the future of the Internet.

Between my experiences growing up in Detroit and serving local communities in Flint in previous years, I have witnessed the consequences of this inequity first-hand.

In returning to Flint this year, I observed that many individuals and community-serving organizations there still have little to no Internet access. As the world now knows, that is in addition to their lack of access to clean water which makes daily living a serious challenge.

Increasing funding for government support or public-private partnerships will be essential to addressing many of the problems the residents of Flint face, but as we work to help close the digital divide, overbearing Internet regulations could stall crucial efforts to increase online access and 'connect all' in these communities.

Just over a year ago the Federal Communications Commission, under pressure from the White House, passed a new regulation in a split 3-2 vote to classify - for the first time ever - Internet service providers as common carrier utilities. The move, referred to as the "nuclear option," forces providers into a rigid 80-year-old model designed to regulate telephone companies in the rotary-phone days of yore.

This kind of overreaching regulation, typical of the Washington bureaucracy, comes at the expense of market competition, which has cultivated the Internet into the powerful tool it is today. In fact, the growth of the Internet traces much of its success back to Clinton Administration, and then FCC Chairman Bill Kennard, who made a policy determination to draw a clear distinction between traditional phone carriers and Internet or information services. The success of the Clinton/Kennard policy speaks for itself in the unpatrolled growth and evolution of Internet networks, products and services over the last two decades.

Mobile broadband is the best example of a life-changing platform that evolved rapidly because of the light-touch regulatory policies implemented during Clinton Administration. Today over 90% of Americans have a choice between 4 or more wireless broadband carriers offering 4G LTE connectivity that deliver speeds and services that many consumers are choosing over traditional cable or other wired Internet connections. And the future is even brighter as we look ahead to 5G that will bring speeds as fast - or faster - than today's fastest fiber networks.

Consumers love mobile for other reasons besides speed and connectivity. Who hasn't had a bad experience with their cable provider? Most consumer have and are choosing mobile for a variety of reasons - whether it be cable's spotty service, limited bundle offerings, how hard (and costly) it is to switch with so few options, or the poor customer service we've come to associate with cable providers.

Consumers are also voting with their wallets. Mobile Internet data costs fell by nearly 100 percent between 2005 and 2013, whereas cable rates have moved in the opposite direction, increasing by eight percent annually since 2010.

By introducing a one-size-fits all regulatory framework to the complex, multi-platform Internet ecosystem, regulators could harm consumers by diminishing competition in the mobile space by slowing investment, limiting creative partnerships and new service offerings, and making it harder for mobile carriers to provide real - and much needed - competition to cable.

That dangers of regulating the mobile Internet are especially salient for minority and low-income families--the very communities the President suggests he's looking out for. African Americans and Latinos are about three times more likely than whites to use their smartphones as their primary means of Internet access. Keeping mobile Internet free from unnecessary regulation will allow more families to stay connected and preserve access to important information and resources available online at affordable rates.

Whether this reclassification will cause a short-term disruption or a permanent slowdown is unclear. What is clear is that Congress can and should step in fix this mess with a legislative solution.

As it stands the decision to regulate Internet service providers under a rigid model designed for a bygone era will impede efforts to bring more people online. In that way the Obama Administration is working against itself--and against communities that lack reliable access to the Internet.

Jeremy White is head of DiverseTech and a former special assistant at the White House.