Criticism of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) new proposal to reform its net neutrality rules has significantly intensified recently and gotten extremely politicized to the point of ignoring salient points in favor of the upcoming proposal. Last week, some protesters even put signs on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s lawn and claimed his children would realize one day that he “murdered Democracy in cold blood.”
Beyond the lack of decency in targeting families, this misguided anger from some unfortunately obscures the issues at the foundation of the debate and undermines any possible merits their viewpoint might have. In addition, the uncompromising stance that many are taking ignores significant data points that indicate at least a correlation, if not direct causation, between the 2015 order to classify broadband service providers as utilities under Title II and a decline in infrastructure investment that poses a large problem within the Internet ecosystem, especially for many in the Latino community. Those who insist that the FCC continue with its costly decision to regulate the Internet as a utility under Title II of a 1934 telephone law must face an unpleasant fact: There is strong evidence that the FCC’s 2015 action has significantly slowed progress on closing the digital divide since one of the main ways to do so is to deploy additional broadband infrastructure to underserved areas.
Even today, after $1.6 trillion invested in broadband deployment during the past two decades, the digital divide remains a serious problem. It hinders access to healthcare, education, workplace training and the ability to be full participants in a society that finds itself more and more integrated into the online world. The FCC’s Title II decision has created confusion, uncertainty and significant new legal costs on broadband service providers. Some of these costs are inevitably passed on to consumers. But Title II’s legal uncertainties are also curbing broadband investment, which is vital to closing the digital divide. Since the FCC’s action, broadband investment has been on a two-year decline, dropping nearly 6%. According to the FCC, this is the first time a decline has happened outside of a recession.
The lack of investment in deployment hits especially hard in rural areas and there is significant evidence that problems stemming from the FCC’s 2015 Title II action are, in fact, hitting rural areas the hardest, which are most in need of expanded broadband access and have a higher proportion of Latinos. Within weeks of the FCC’s action, the Commission began receiving documented cases from across the country of small Internet providers pulling back from upgrades because of new legal costs from the Commission’s new rules. Last April, nearly two dozen small Internet providers explained in an open letter to the FCC how Title II regulations have “slowed, if not halted, the development and deployment of innovative new offerings which would benefit our customers.” These providers are from places like Chaparral, NM (80+% Latino) and Warner Robins, Georgia (45% Latino & African-American). Less investment in deployment of infrastructure hits those in rural areas the hardest and maintains or widens the digital divide every day there is no action.
Recognizing the costs and problems of the FCC’s Title II Internet regulation is crucial because it shows the pressing need to reform these rules. Doing nothing is not an option. Failure to reach a better solution for all stakeholders means millions of Americans who lack modern broadband will have less chance for more reliable and accessible Internet service. The Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP) is on record and vehemently maintains that a free and open Internet is the best environment for all Internet users, but regulating broadband service providers using an outdated regulatory framework is certainly not the answer. Hence, there is always a middle ground to consider.
Investment in infrastructure deployment aside, it is important to also examine the merits of the FCC’s proposed plan with regard to consumer protections. The FCC’s plan continues protections but does so through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has been on the front lines in legal fights against telemarketers, text spammers and other bad actors online . Under the new system, net users still have online protections and these protections will come not only from the FTC but also from existing federal and state laws. These laws and their protections will not change, even with reform of the net neutrality/Title II process. With this in mind, HTTP strongly urges the FTC and state and local authorities to continue to create and enact proactive, comprehensive consumer protections.
This month, the FCC is likely to approve its proposal for reversing the order that classified broadband service providers as utilities under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. This will ideally help boost infrastructure investment levels that current rules have likely hindered and promote a more reliable and accessible Internet for all. HTTP has and will continue to advocate for an open Internet and one that is accessible to all Americans, especially Latinos who continue to be on the wrong side of the digital divide, to be able to thrive in the online world.
Read More on telecom issues by Rosa Mendoza, Executive Director, HTTP