For the last decade, there has been a hot-blooded policy debate in Washington that most consumers are unaware of and to some, it may seem quite niche, yet network neutrality (a.k.a. the open Internet) has controlled the tech agenda while tech issues of greater importance to everyday Americans have taken a back seat. For years, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have debated whether rules are needed to protect the "open Internet" from potential favoritism of certain websites or services by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). But the issue, as with most things technological, is not that simple.
If recent headlines are any indication, the contentiousness of the debate may soon be over. The FCC is set to release a new set of proposed "open Internet" rules that are designed to pass muster with the recent ruling of the D.C. Circuit Court whom overruled the FCC in its last attempt to regulate in this area. Those on the right balk at the idea of regulating the Internet for the first time and point to the lack of any current problems, yet those on the left want a tightly regulated Internet.
As a former Member of Congress who regularly worked across the aisle to find common ground on important issues, this particular situation paints a clear picture -- if extremes on both ends of the political spectrum are not happy with the potential rules, then the FCC has likely found the right balance between no rules and protecting consumers without stunting innovation and investment. While the devil is always in the details of the language of the rules, it appears FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has found a way forward that may finally move us past this net neutrality debate once and for all. We can hope! With a full agenda on the FCC docket of more important issues such as bringing more wireless spectrum to market for mobile devices through auctions, managing the transition of communications networks from copper-based technologies to those that use fiber-optic cables and in working with Congress to modernize the Communications Act for today's digital age.
This last focus area, modernizing the Communications Act, is one that deserves the top spot on the Washington tech agenda. As we've seen our world transformed by computers, the Internet and mobility in just the last twenty years, the laws governing this space have not kept pace. The law dates all the way back to 1934 when the FCC was first created. Congress made major changes to Communications Act in 1996, but in that reform there were more references to payphones than to mobile phones or the Internet. The reoccurring policy fight over network neutrality is just one symptom of the larger obsolete communications statute and its inability to govern the disputes, players and issues prevalent in today's dynamic Internet ecosystem.
Thankfully, there is progress, late last year the Chairman of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, announced plans to update the Communications Act, embarking on "a multi-year effort to examine our nation's communications laws and update them for the Internet era." As part of the process, the Committee has undertaken an information gathering process by collecting input on key technology issues through public comments from a variety of stakeholders.
Committee member, Representative G.K. Butterfield (D-NC-1), recently said:
Congress must act quickly to update its communications policy framework while partnering and empowering private industry to robustly invest in network expansion and improvements. Outdated regulations are not beneficial to industry and it's the American people that ultimately pay the price of burdensome rules.
I could not have said it better myself.
It is imperative for Members in both parties to make this Communications Act reform their first priority. The promises of reform -- expansion of rural broadband, access to remote education and telehealth for our citizens and increased social and civic participation of our youth are well worth our time and energy. This can only be achieved by moving beyond issues that divide and focusing on shared communications priorities for the future. It's time for Congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle to work together and move our nation's communications laws into the 21st century.