But getting it right is no simple matter. A regulatory model crafted in the 1930s for a one-company phone system must be updated for a world in which multiple kinds of companies compete for consumer affection by offering a wide-ranging and overlapping suite of choices for voice, video, cable, and broadband communications. The diversity and functionalities of the services and the networks that deliver them have been and continue to evolve at breathtaking pace, offering consumers a robustly competitive market. Regulators need not panic; indeed, they too should welcome this competitive reality. As to protecting the underserved and vulnerable segments of consumers, the approach could be relatively straightforward.
For regulators, the most important word may be “humility.” In a world where the next hot broadband provider, technology, device or application can be overtaken and crushed in a matter of months, policymakers should acknowledge economic regulations intended to shape market structure in a world of a single technology monopoly have at best a modest role in the broadband sector.
The societal benefits that many expect will flow from a better and faster digital infrastructure are in fact uniting stakeholders, a testament to both the importance of the upgrades and the desire to make sure it goes well for all consumers. AT&T, one of the country’s top providers of phone, broadband, and mobile services, has indicated it agrees with Public Knowledge’s principles and believes no one should be left behind, during or after the transition. There is also wide support for having the FCC oversee market trials as a way to determine specific impacts on consumers, a practical approach for addressing theoretical problems.
If the regulators can keep their focus on protecting consumers, as opposed to competitors, and allow the market to do its part to fund the upgrades and innovate around obstacles, we would all be well served with a dynamically competitive broadband sector and the basis for a thriving digital economy.
Balto is a former policy director of the Federal Trade Commission, as well as a former trial attorney in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. He is now a lawyer in private practice.