The national broadband goal: A technology upgrade that leaves no one behind

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
Public-interest advocacy group Public Knowledge, which has frequently clashed with telecom providers, recently suggested five policy principles to govern the technology upgrade. These include basic protections that ensure universal service, interconnectivity across networks, access to public safety and emergency services, and transparency in disclosures about terms of service. These seem to strike the right balance of offering protections without intervening in and slowing down the sector’s natural cycles of investment and innovation.

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.