Handle With Care

It’s hard to argue with Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s assessment that broadband is an unprecedented, transformative technology that has changed the lives of billions and promises to be the most central technology to the economy and the public’s health and welfare in history. So we won’t.

Does the government have a role to play in ensuring that platform is not used to hurt competitors, steal information from our bank accounts and stifle expression? Of course. Does it have an affirmative obligation to try to ensure that every person of every color and every socioeconomic status has access to that transformative technology? Yes. Lack of access becomes a regressive tax on those who can least afford it.

But good people can, and clearly do, disagree on what government’s role should be and on how to achieve those laudable goals without discouraging the private enterprise that has made it possible to build out broadband to virtually everyone, and high-speed broadband, even at the new standard of 25 Megabits per second, to a majority (80% by the FCC’s own count).

The FCC’s new speed target is a noble effort, but tied to a broad grant of Section 706 authority it becomes a way to justify new regulation without having to make, as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association pointed out, a reasoned assessment of the market.

Invoking the importance of broadband should not automatically end the debate on how large a role the government needs to have in ensuring high-speed broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely manner. Some could argue cable operators have been spending billions to upgrade wires to do just that.

The new rules are the most extreme ever proposed. Are they needed for crimes that aren’t being committed?

You’d be hard pressed to find blocking of competitors by Comcast and other big cable giants today — the Internet in the U.S. is doing just fine, thank you very much, with few complaints about lack of innovation or competition.

For consumers, is the new law just a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist but might happen? Is it, as commissioner Ajit Pai said, a “monumental shift toward government control of the Internet?” and “billions of dollars in new taxes on broadband?”.

Given the debates — and lawsuits — ahead, it may be a while, years perhaps, before we know what the effect of these regulations will be.

We saw the 1992 Cable Act, passed ostensibly to corral runaway cable rates after the industry was deregulated, have the opposite effect on the monthly bills Americans paid for that transformative service.

Our plea to chairman Wheeler: Proceed with caution.