The Federal Communication Commission's recent Open Internet Order is intended to develop an enforceable regulatory scheme to ensure that net neutrality would be achieved. One of its rationales is that unless such government intervention is put in place, the United States is likely to slip into the category of Internet also-rans, hurting innovation and our economy as a whole as Internet "fast lanes" and "slow lanes" thwart competition and impede consumer demand.
But how accurate is this perception? The Internet, after all, is not just a network of networks, but rather a complex ecosystem comprised of applications and content, devices and networks. The interdependency of these three pillars creates the rich experience of the Internet, not just in the United States, but all around the world.
And consumer usage patterns continue to be extraordinarily dynamic, as well. More people now access the Internet through mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, than on desktops and laptops tethered in homes, for example. And more people now rely on apps rather than browsers to get the information and help they need more readily. Policies premised on fixed residential use of fiber-based broadband do not seem to recognize that these seismic changes already have occurred.
Professor Michael E. Porter of Harvard Business School noted in his seminal Harvard Business Review article from 1990, "The Competitive Advantage of Nations," that "[a] nation's competitiveness depends on its industry to innovate and upgrade. In a world of increasingly global competition, nations have become more, not less important. As the basis of competition has shifted more and more to the creation and assimilation of knowledge, the role of the nation has grown."
Today's broadband-enabled world — a truly global Internet ecosystem — is a living laboratory for creating the competitive advantage of nations in the 21st century. The broadband Internet ecosystem of each country depends upon consistent innovation that leads nations to pursue ever-more sophisticated sources of competitive advantage, rather than on regulatory approaches that may or may not achieve that same objective.
During the past five years, I have been involved in researching the best available metrics that capture comparative national performance across the full broadband Internet ecosystem. The resulting Net Vitality Index, the first-ever quantitative and qualitative analysis of its type, has just been released by the Media Institute's Global Internet Freedom Program and is a composite of 52 separate broadband Internet ecosystem indices developed independently to evaluate individual countries on an "apples-to-apples" basis.
The development of this index helps identify the top-tier global broadband Internet leaders: An elite grouping of five countries that distinguish themselves as pacesetters for future benchmarking and best practices analyses. These leaders, grouped in a leadership tier rather than rank ordered, are the United States, South Korea, Japan, the United Kingdom and France.
On the domestic front, the Net Vitality Index clearly shows the enormous strength of the United States in all aspects of broadband Internet development. This top-tier global status was achieved over many years with a light-touch regulatory approach in place, which the FCC now has decided should be reversed in the interest of promoting net neutrality. Much of the advocacy to support this net neutrality approach has been based on an assumption that new rules are needed to help the U.S. boost its lagging performance in comparison with other countries.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Net Vitality Index shows that the U.S. leadership position in broadband is strong, impressive and durable.
The wide-open Internet is not just a digital data transport path; instead, it is a critical digital engine for national economic, educational, cultural and social growth, with the broadband Internet ecosystem as its base. This distinction is worth underscoring as new government policies such as net neutrality are crafted. These policies may hit the target, but also may miss the mark because they do not focus on potential ecosystem impacts when policies are crafted with only one element in mind.
Brotman is a faculty member at Harvard Law School and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation. He also serves on the Media Institute's Global Internet Freedom Advisory Council.