There are a number of threats to the Internet as a system for innovation, commerce and education today. They include net neutrality, the price of Internet access in America, performance, rural availability and privacy.
But none of these are the root issue, they’re just symptoms.
The root cause of all of these symptoms is a disease: a lack of competition for consumer Internet access.
Lets call it like it is: in most of America, we’ve got a broadband duopoly at best. And it’s simple economic theory and best-practice capitalism that in an unregulated near-monopoly, you will see manifestations of policies, practices and behaviors that are not always customer friendly.
If we accept that high speed Internet access is essential for modern life, the fact that we need a set of controls that assure that an entrenched operator won’t use their captive audience in an unreasonable way shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But policies on neutrality can only fix one symptom of America’s ailment. They won’t help with the issues like price, speed, rural access or privacy practices.
The real cure is an outbreak of competitive Internet access.
But in 2004, the FCC took steps to limit competition, turning away from key provisions of the 1996 Telecom Act. They set aside unbundling requirements which serve as a key bridge for competitive carriers. By circumventing Congress this way, the Bush-appointed Chairman of the FCC was able to turn back a competitive tide, creating an intentional duopoly on Internet access in the US.
The in FCC’s Triennial Review Remand Order of 2004, they wrote:
In our Triennial Review Order, we recognized the marketplace realities of robust broadband competition and increasing competition from intermodal sources, and thus eliminated most unbundling requirements for broadband architectures serving the mass market
(“Robust broadband competition?” Really??)
While neutrality is the topic of the day, the real fix is to reinvigorate competitive Internet access in America. Competitive access in Europe supported by legislation similar to The 1996 Act has resulted in lower costs for consumers and far more choices in Europe. What Michael Powell decided to do hasn’t worked out as well for Americans.
Today’s FCC should return to the roots of the Telecom Act, and reinforce the unbundling requirements, assuring that they are again technology neutral. This will create an investment ladder to facilities for competitive carriers, opening access to build out and serve areas that are beyond our reach today.
I call on the FCC to reconsider the decisions of that past era, and to take steps to reintroduce UNE-L (unbunded network element: loop) requirements, including access to available dark fiber, which is a critical backhaul component for competitive carriers. Copper unbundling is only fully viable when the middle mile fiber isn’t missing from the equation.
ps: Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell is now a lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecom Association. The Cable-company members of that association are the “robust” competition from “intermodal” (that’s cable) sources referenced above, and also provided a nice soft landing for a former FCC Chairman. How often does a regulator get the chance to create a monopoly, then go work for it? Too often.