Op-eds and Articles

The Hill: Been there, done that on broadband

By / 3.13.2014

A DC federal court struck down the FCC’s “net neutrality” regulations earlier this year, but did nothing to resolve an ongoing debate over whether or how the government should regulate the Internet.  At the heart of the controversy lies a central question – should we regulate the Internet as we did the old telephone network and other so-called “common carriers”?

In a paper to be released this week by the Progressive Policy Institute, I examine the past two decades’ experience to shed light on this question.  And the answer that keeps coming up is that proposals for strict utility-style regulation of the Internet have two things in common.  First, they are based on the presence of a “natural monopoly” for broadband that simply does not exist.  And second, where they have been tried, utility-style rules have been the greatest single obstacle to investment in broadband infrastructure.

From the earliest days of the Bell monopoly, our telephone system was built around an explicit bargain.  In exchange for a guaranteed and low-risk profit, the Bell system would provide quality, reliable phone service to the nation.  This bargain was deemed necessary because it was assumed that phone service was a “natural monopoly” where the costs of infrastructure were so high that competition wasn’t possible.  But by the 1990s, those assumptions had completely broken down.  Microwaves and coaxial cable could carry phone calls, phone lines could deliver video, and an “information superhighway” loomed in the future.

The Clinton administration’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 sorted this mess out and launched the age of modern Internet policy – trusting market forces and technological innovation to the maximum extent.  It was an act of incredible political maturity.  Its authors knew something remarkable was about to happen and that government could best serve it by stepping back and letting private investment happen.

Continue reading at the Hill.