The case for progressive communications policy

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“In five years,” Kennard wrote in his 1999 Strategic Plan, “we expect U.S. communications markets to be characterized predominately by vigorous competition that will greatly reduce the need for direct regulation.”
 
Some might think it unusual for a Democrat to lay out a vision of streamlined regulation. But progressives were the first to recognize that broadband technology would fundamentally move the balance of power in markets toward consumers. They were also the first to see the benefits – empowering citizens, encouraging discourse, creating opportunity and enabling solutions to societal challenges such as healthcare and energy conservation – that lie at the center of progressives’ view of a better world.  
 
But what is the progressive stance now?  Kennard’s vision of a streamlined FCC did not materialize.
 
Some progressives became advocates of an aggressive regulatory stance with roots in the distant Ma Bell past – in the form of “net neutrality,” “common carriage,” limitations on the sale of electromagnetic spectrum, and policies targeted at companies that build and manage networks. But this agenda has been proven wrong.  
 
Its economics were predicated on the theory that access to technology would be monopolized by one or two connectivity providers. But competition and innovation have flourished – LTE set the connectivity bar at a new high, and the providers of devices (iPhone) and services (Google, Facebook) now crowd the pricing power of connectivity providers.
 
Meanwhile, the “neutral” prescription that all traffic move on the same terms and conditions threatens innovations – such as remote medicine – that rely on the highest quality signal. 
 
On the other side, conservatives have a simple vision of policy on emerging communications technologies – leave them alone. 
 
So are these our choices - to embrace an aggressive, “neutral” regulatory agenda or to accede to conservative laissez-faire? We argue there is a third, more promising option for a “progressive policy agenda.” 
 
It balances respect for the private investment that built the nation’s communications infrastructure with the need to realize these technologies’ full promise as a form of social infrastructure and a tool for individual empowerment. 
 
It turns away from problems we may reasonably fear but rarely exist, and forthrightly addresses new ones, such as the need to provide ubiquitous access to these technologies and exploit them as a social asset, to create institutions that allow for their unpredictable and burgeoning growth, and to protect consumers’ rights.
 
As we ready for the new Congress – and a probable re-write of the law that governs communications technologies – progressives should refocus their vision by:
 
· Recognizing the new competitive “ecosystem” in which we exist. “Neutrality” and other regulatory schemes are based on the idea that providers of connectivity would create monopolistic choke points. But in practice, other parts of the communications experience are more concentrated – be they devices, search, mobile operating systems, services or applications such as social networking. In fact, these other parts now extract the value created by stronger and faster signals – for example, cloud computing, made possible by signal providers’ innovation.

· Focusing on closing the “digital divide.” One good way to start is by recognizing the role of all technologies – including wireless, used disproportionately by minorities – to spread the benefits of advanced broadband to all.
· Helping the current FCC Chairman reach his goal of bringing 500 MHz of spectrum – the fuel of wireless – to market by 2020 by liberating unused federal spectrum, holding effective open auctions of broadcasters’ spectrum, and allowing companies to swap and sell spectrum.  
· Committing to a consumer-centric policy on digital privacy. The White House seeks to reward companies that give consumers control over their personal data, and to give consumers one agency to enforce their rights. They deserve our support.

Progressives didn’t invent the Internet –academia, government, and private businesses (that invested tens of billions building out its structure and applications) did. But progressives do seek to unleash Internet technologies to serve all of us. “Neutrality” won’t do that, but a new progressive agenda will.
 
Ehrlich served as undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration. McCullough served as a Senate Commerce Committee counsel. Both work for firms that represent telecom and tech companies.