Keep the Internet Open and Free—Without Regulation
By   John F. Jones, Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Government Relations
July 12, 2017

With the debate about potential harms to the internet caused by the FCC’s revisiting the Open Internet order, we should all take a collective breath and determine if there is any real harm to certain market segments due to the current regulation the FCC is attempting to address.

In 2015, the FCC reversed decades of regulatory restraint and reclassified broadband internet as a telecommunications service, also known as Title II regulation. It was a controversial action. These regulatory changes led to customer confusion over privacy rules, reduced investment by network providers and investors with increased regulatory burdens, and did nothing to protect customers from edge provider abuses.

In fact, data shows that investment in domestic broadband by the 12 largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) decreased by 5.6 percent which equates to 3.6 billion dollars in investment—and for the smaller, primarily rural ISPs, the impact is worse. Financing for infrastructure projects has dried up, especially in rural areas.  Admittedly, the 2015 order is not the only factor leading to reduced investment, but there is little doubt that the regulatory uncertainty it caused stifled ongoing infrastructure investment.

The majority of rural providers have done remarkable work enabling broadband service in the communities they serve.  Rural markets should not be defined by the size of their network provider, but by the density of the population and the difficulty to reach and serve them. Those customers want the same speeds and reliability that bring jobs and opportunities—and we strive to meet those needs. However, network providers like CenturyLink that have already invested heavily in most of their markets face very real challenges investing in the remaining highest cost areas.

Those challenges have long included lack of density, the cost of building broadband infrastructure in diverse terrains, and the need for capital funding. Regulatory rules that adversely impact any one of those diminish the ability to connect some communities to the global economy with fundamental service or meaningful speeds. The FCC and Congress have focused on the rural broadband challenge—by directing federal investment and streamlining the infrastructure deployment process. But those initiatives won’t go very far if heavy handed regulation makes the business plan to build unrealistic.

That is because increased regulation of the internet deters investment in networks, slows innovation and harms consumers. The 2015 Open Internet Order impacts network providers disproportionately, while edge (content) providers are not subject to the onerous rules that were adopted. At CenturyLink, we support an open internet through the reversal of regulatory restrictions that harm businesses, consumers, and impede job growth. A truly open internet requires consistent rules for all providers of internet services, including content providers, which protect customers and investment—especially in rural markets.

The net neutrality regulatory ping pong caused by the FCC’s 2015 decision has created regulatory uncertainty, confusion, and focuses on only one corner – the underlying infrastructure – of the internet ecosystem. That is the very infrastructure that requires regulatory stability to be able to attract investment.

An excessive regulatory regime, like Title II – designed for monopoly telephone companies, not broadband providers – hampers our progress. Time and money is directed elsewhere as we figure out whether the specific network we want to build, the services we want to provide, and the rates we are permitted to charge, are regulated or may be regulated in the future. This uncertainty is real and has enormous impacts on broadband investment decisions. In the end, it is customers who lose when investment is stifled.

The best way to end the confusion is Congressional action. But, in the meantime, the FCC is appropriately reconsidering its ill-conceived 2015 Title II Order. Reversing the FCC’s 2015 Internet regulation order will do several positive things:

  • Increase customer choice
  • Spur innovation and investment
  • Create lasting consumer and competitive protections.

Expanding infrastructure and innovating to bring the benefits of broadband access to all Americans should be our focus, not the changing winds of Washington, D.C. and regulation.    

Now is the time to support FCC Chairman Pai’s efforts to remove Title II regulation from the internet and to tell Congress to reverse the regulatory power grab that has harmed investment in America’s rural areas. We need to support investment, innovation, and consumers—rural and urban alike—with an even-handed approach that protects customers with a truly open internet and encourages investment in our collective infrastructure.

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