THE BLOG
08/04/2014 10:23 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014

The Internet Is Not a Water Pipe

We hear about disruptive innovation everywhere in the tech space. The words get thrown in as an argument, a goal, an ideal -- a sacred totem of sorts -- in almost every aspect of debate over technology policy.

That's because disruptive innovation through technology -- particularly broadband-powered technology -- is the key to solving some of our greatest human problems.

The Internet will power the technological disruptions offering some of the most social good. Think of the benefits of Internet-powered learning environments for school children, where students' laptops and mobile tablets and phones surround a student in connected, gamified learning. Imagine your grandmother, suffering through a heart condition, spending more days at home because of direct contact with a doctor over her the internet. These are the things the internet makes possible.

Each of those technologies are here today and will spread over the next decade to help more people. But what we know about innovation and disruption, is that we don't know what is coming next. Netflix, pronounced dead more than once, went on to reinvent itself, and change the video rental business. Uber and Lyft are reconstructing the urban taxi business as you read this. Airbnb is becoming the place for savvy personal and business travelers to save money and experience a city.

All of this happened because the internet got faster and better year after year.

Because of its power and potential, the Internet needs innovation most of all. The above examples illustrate that the modern Internet is the vehicle for 21st century business, communication, health and education. Your iPhone is already likely the first place you go to do everything from checking your bank account to finding movie tickets. If you have a smartphone and a car, chances are you did not also buy a GPS system. We imagine a future where wireless broadband is as fast and capable as wireline and where satellite broadband leaves the other technologies in the dust. The future is one where the internet is everywhere, and we have access to any and all content we want, when we want it, on the device of choice. These innovations will come about, not because Congress, the FCC or industry knows they are coming. Theses technologies emerge through experimentation and investment and the desire to fill a need in the marketplace. That's the kind of disruptive innovation that the internet needs. It is what took us from dial up to DSL to fiber and to LTE wireless. The future of the internet ecosystem is limited only by the resourcefulness of those experimenting today on the technologies of the future.

But this is the opposite of what some of the loudest "consumer advocates" are calling for today.

The small, loud group calling for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to change course from a successful, more than two decade path, in which the internet has flourished under a light-touch regulatory structure don't seem to care about this version of internet innovation. They ignore the hundreds of billions of dollars in private investment that has made the internet faster and more capable every year of its existence.

Those calling for the internet to be reclassified under Title II of the Telecom Act of 1996 want to impose a set of regulations intended for a monopoly telephone system of a century ago. These are regulations of which President Clinton's FCC Chair, Bill Kennard, explained in 1999, that "applying Title II regulations to broadband "threatens to slow down the nascent broadband industry and would be inimical to the intent of the 1996 Act."

Title II advocates seem to think of the internet as a big, global water pipe. You pour content into the top, and the water just flows through. No thinking, nothing complex involved.

In fact, the modern internet is an incredibly complex, global group of systems that have to talk to each other, make nano-second fast decisions, and deliver trillions of bits of information to billions of devices and people -- now featuring large swaths of high definition video. The internet requires continuing, large sums of private investment to keep on getting better and faster. It requires sharp engineers to figure out new ways to increase capacity, manage the networks to avoid clogging when possible, and ensure the best experience for all. It also requires new and novel business models that could create exciting opportunities to serve us better, faster, and in more interesting ways. That is what was proposed by Chairman Wheeler's net neutrality plan, and what more than 40 organizations joined with MMTC in recent comments to the Commission.

Imposing outdated Title II telephone regulations on the internet doesn't make sense, and would not serve anyone -- not even the innovative silicon valley business built on their ability to deliver increasingly massive amounts of content online. The cost of building out fiber, wireless broadband towers, and managing broadband networks is part of a dynamic internet economy as well.

Virtually all in the debate agree that all legal content should be available everywhere, that ISP's (as well as the rest of the ecosystem companies) should be held to be transparent, and that no content should be denigrated or slowed. But what the more than 40 organizations are calling for, is a balanced approach to internet policy that doesn't put the entire cost of the internet's future on the poor, those who are just emerging online, and regular families paying for a home or wireless broadband subscription.

The future of the internet requires innovation. It requires investment. It requires policy that allows the internet to move forward, rather than take it back to last century, or even hold us in this one. It certainly requires policy makers to think past the water pipe.

Jason Llorenz, JD is a scholar at Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, where he teaches courses in technology policy and social media. His research focuses on universal digital inclusion in the digital economy. Twitter: @llorenzesq