FCC Chief’s ‘Wagon Train’ Moment

Almost everything
that can be
said about the
Federal Communications
proposal to adopt new
rules governing the practices of
Internet-service providers has
been said — at least for now.

My own post-Comcast decision
position is that, if a commission
majority is determined
that some form of Internet regulation
is necessary or advisable,
the agency should work with
Congress to amend the Communications
Act to give the commission
circumscribed authority to
adjudicate complaints alleging
that ISPs possessing market power
have engaged in practices that
cause consumer harm.

What moves me (metaphorically,
at least) to pick up my pen
today is the sense that Federal
Communnications Commission
chairman Julius Genachowski is
rapidly reaching a Wagon Train
moment. Many of the readers of
this space are too young to have
watched the 1957-65 television series,
starring Ward Bond as wagon
master Seth Adams. For some
time, it was television’s top-rated
show. And I watched along with
millions of Americans.

Here’s the image that sticks
in my mind about Wagon Train .
As the wagon train, with its pioneers,
pushed steadily west,
week after week, there were always
potential perils ahead. Th e
scout’s job was to ride ahead and
to detect and appraise the dangers
— and to report back to Adams.
He had to assess the scout’s
information — and to have the
foresight to make the right decision
about the road ahead.

Genachowski is facing his
own Wagon Train moment.
Presumably, his scouts have
considered potential perils
and off ered their assessments
of various options. But like the
wagon master, in this instance
the decision is his. He is being
pressed by Democratic commissioner
Michael Copps to
classify broadband Internet services
as Title II common-carrier
services and regulate them,
as Free Press chairman Tim Wu
says, just like the railroads and
telegraph carriers were regulated
in 1910. Democrat Mignon Clyburn
reportedly would go along
with this approach, while Republicans
Robert McDowell and Meredith
Baker steadfastly oppose it.

Ultimately, the wagon train’s
pioneers — risking all — had
to depend on the wagon master’s
experience, expertise, and
most of all, sound judgment, to
make the right decision. Making
the right decision involved
an understanding by the wagon
master of what had been encountered
on the trail already
traveled. But, more importantly,
it involved an ability to look
ahead, to see around the curve
in the bend — to see into the future,
if you will — concerning
the trail not yet traveled. The
responsibility of leadership was
the wagon master’s.

I have been thinking of my
childhood memories of Wagon
and my adulthood image
of all varieties of wagon trains
as I contemplate where we are
today in the network neutrality
debate. Th ere may be options
other than my preferred one of
the FCC working with Congress
to develop a new market-oriented
statutory framework. For example,
perhaps the FCC could
adopt the transparency rule it
has proposed, and adopt a rule
governing Internet practices
along the lines I suggest for a
statutory provision.

But I am strongly of the view
that a bare FCC majority should
not turn back the clock to 1910.
In the technologically dynamic
and rapidly evolving competitive
marketplace environment
in which they operate, broadband
Internet-service providers
do not resemble 20th century
railroads, or telegraph carriers,
or Ma Bell. Putting aside all
the legal diffi culties that changing
the ISPs’ present “information
services” classifi cation
would cause, the risks to innovation
and investment posed
by imposing a common carrier
straightjacket make such a backwards-
looking approach untenable
as a matter of policy.

If chairman Genachowski
has a proper appreciation and
understanding of the road already
traveled by communications
policy in the past decade
or so — simply put, from largely
regulated monopolistic narrowband
telephone services to lightly
regulated broadband Internet
services — and a farsightedness
concerning the road ahead, as
the Internet continues to evolve,
he will not want to turn-about
and go backwards. Th ere is no
doubt that the Title II common
carrier route would constitute
such a turnabout.

Come to think of it, I don’t remember
wagon master Seth
Adams ever turning the wagon
train around and heading backwards.
The wagon train always
continued on the westward journey,
the way forward.

As a leader, chairman Genachowski
is facing his wagon train
moment. I’d be quite surprised —
and very disappointed — if he decided
to turn around and head in
a backwards direction on the nation’s
Internet journey.

Randolph J. May is president
of the Free State Foundation, a
Potomac, Md.-based nonpartisan
think tank.