By Michael Powell
NCTA President & CEO
The COVID pandemic exposed the importance of having the internet at home. People without access couldn’t work, educate their kids or provide for their family’s health. This was the catalyst that led Congress and the White House to allocate billions of dollars to close the digital divide.
Our leaders are celebrating this achievement, proclaiming it will deliver “Internet for All,” but a victory lap is premature. Even with a large war chest of government money, building and operating networks in rural communities remains risky, given the difficult geography and sparse populations. Additionally, carriers will have to navigate supply shortages, a lack of skilled labor, inflation, long delays getting permits, and a multi-headed bureaucratic process for receiving the money. The appetite for such risk is not bottomless.
If we hope to succeed, the government must do more to lighten the burden and mitigate the risk of multi-year construction projects where it can. Beyond subsidies, its most significant lever is removing and not adding unnecessary regulatory roadblocks. This was recently demonstrated in Pennsylvania, where government leaders suspended burdensome bidding requirements, allowing a collapsed I-95 bridge to be repaired in 12 days rather than the expected year.
But instead of clearing a path for successfully delivering broadband to the unserved, the Federal Communications Commission is about to drop a big regulatory anvil on the road that will worsen a hard problem and discourage participation among the entities needed to wire America.
With a newly minted Democratic majority, the FCC Chair is proposing to reflexively dust off net neutrality rules and a sweeping regulatory framework that were repealed almost seven years ago without harmful consequence. If they do, they risk cratering our mission to connect every American.
Yet another pitched fight over net neutrality will distract from the relentless focus essential to making the infrastructure program a success. Revived rules will destabilize the regulatory environment as challenges drag on for years in the courts—and, as we know, the regulations ping-pong back and forth every time the presidency changes parties.
This lack of enduring clarity is a challenging environment to take on risky builds. Worse, the FCC will have enormous power to control virtually any aspect of the internet access business, including setting prices, which will erode interest in investing the large sums of private money required to match government funds. Stacking it all up will yield a cross too heavy to bear.
And for what? Since the rules were abandoned, there has not been any evidence of ISPs blocking or erecting toll lanes on the internet as progressive advocates predicted with unshakable certitude uttered in dark, apocalyptic tones. Instead of leading to “the end of the internet,” both 5G wireless and 10G wired broadband networks have remained open, are getting faster, and remain affordable—substantially lagging inflation.
Advocates and political partisans might want to claim a big government regulatory victory, but there is nothing in it for consumers who have been enjoying this progress. It is time to accept that a light-touch regulatory model first championed by the Clinton Administration has worked.
The government needs to think long and hard about the choices it makes. While reviving net neutrality will check a partisan political box, it risks blowing our once-in-a-lifetime chance to get all Americans the internet access they deserve.