As many Americans look to policymakers to avoid gridlock in the coming months, a potential model for meaningful progress is emerging in an unlikely place. After years of confrontation and high bombast, the technology community, consumer groups and key policymakers appear to be coalescing around a reasonable resolution to the infamous 'net neutrality' debate. The initial elements were announced this week by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski.
Though all of the details have yet to be released, early indications suggest that this may be the best shot all stakeholders have had in years to turn swords into plowshares and get on with the important work of advancing innovation and, with it, our nation's economic recovery and growth.
The compromise is now the subject of furious lobbying on the FCC's eighth floor in anticipation of a December 21 vote. It's modeled off legislation drafted in September by Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
It would codify into regulation the net neutrality principles that the broadband industry has lived under voluntarily for the past five years, adding heft and clear enforcement authority to these key consumer protections and solidifying the open Internet we all enjoy today.
The plan would advance this core objective under the FCC's existing authority under Title I of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. This is the dealmaker on the investment side, easing off more extreme, early proposals--highly questionable in their legal standing--that would impose onto broadband networks the Title II regulatory regime written for a bygone era of monopoly telephone service.
The plan would make the essential engineering acknowledgment that wireless networks operate in a fundamentally different manner from wired networks and must be carefully managed to ensure a robust, positive consumer experience.
As with all compromises, this one will never satisfy all parties. To reasonable observers, that is a healthy sign of the give-and-take on all sides that went into reaching this potentially game-changing moment. Consumers will have fortified protections. And, the innovation and financial communities will have a more stable and certain climate in which to create jobs and continue massive, ongoing investment in next-generation infrastructure.
If successful, this would be a much-needed win for sound policymaking, too. In engineering this new framework, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wisely recognized that an ideologically rigid approach is rarely the hallmark of good governance.
His proposal represents a significant evolution from early and more polarizing ideas. Along the way, there was extremely rigorous, transparent and tenacious consultation with key stakeholders -- industry, labor and consumer groups, as well as legislators. If embraced, the plan would break a years-long logjam and open a path to constructive engagement on other pressing matters where there is broad potential for further consensus -- chief among them the identification and allocation of new spectrum to keep pace with exponentially growing mobile data traffic.
At first blush, net neutrality seems an unlikely contender as a model for consensus-building in our nation's capital, one that takes into account not just the views of politicians, but of all stakeholders. But, perhaps it is precisely the issue's history of conflict that makes it so ripe with potential. All sides are battle weary. All sides have legitimate points. And, much of the passion behind this debate comes from a shared belief in the stakes -- the vast potential of broadband to improve people's lives and our nation's economy.
Sustained conflict was, and continues to be, the worst of all options for everyone.
Leading voices from across the debate have shown a tentative openness to détente. Chairman Genachowski has put the possibility tantalizingly within reach, recognizing though that much work still needs to be done. For better or for worse, the rest is politics, and all who engage in it should seize the moment.
Jonathan Spalter, chairman of Mobile Future, has been founding CEO of leading technology, media, and research companies, including Public Insight, Snocap, and Atmedica Worldwide. He served as an advisor to and spokesperson for Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration.
Mobile Future is a 501(c)(4) coalition comprised of and supported by technology businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals dedicated to advocating for an environment in which innovations in wireless technology and services are enabled and encouraged. For a full list of members and sponsors and to learn more about the coalition, go to www.mobilefuture.org.