Broadband internet has become essential, fueling our economy, education and social lives. As our reliance on it continues to grow, the Federal Communications Commission is poised to impose new regulations that treat internet service like a traditional utility, having adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to regulate broadband under Title II of the Communications Act.
But taking a closer look at the performance of U.S. broadband networks, especially during the pandemic, reveals that such a move would harm consumers and innovation.
First, it’s crucial to understand the implications of classifying broadband as a utility. Utilities, such as electricity and water, are heavily regulated by the government. This regulation often results in a lack of competition, slow innovation, and limited consumer choices. Regarding broadband, a less onerous regulatory framework has yielded the opposite results.
During the pandemic, broadband providers demonstrated agility in responding to increased demand. As millions of Americans shifted to remote work and online learning, we might have expected the internet to falter under the new demand. But broadband networks held up remarkably well.
Despite an unprecedented surge in data consumption, providers adapted, investing billions of dollars to upgrade their infrastructure and increase capacity. This flexibility is a hallmark of a competitive industry, where providers strive to meet the needs of consumers efficiently and quickly.
Contrast that with utilities like electricity. In recent years, we have witnessed numerous power outages and overwhelmed electric grids, often caused by aging infrastructure and inadequate investment. Or take water utilities. Water prices have been rising, and failures of water infrastructure have increased despite relatively stable consumption levels. Imagine the failures if water utilities faced an increase in demand akin to what broadband networks experienced during the pandemic.
Furthermore, utilities also have a history of slow technological advancement. Telephones in the 1980s looked pretty much the same as those in the 1950s. That’s because regulation that insulates utility companies from competition also eliminates incentives to improve their services. For a service as essential as broadband. We can’t afford that kind of stagnation for a service as essential as broadband.
The federal broadband policy is otherwise geared toward promoting ever-faster speeds. And broadband providers are already leading the way. Indeed, while you read this, there is intense competition between mobile, cable and satellite companies who are always seeking to take market share from one another.
Five years ago, you probably wouldn’t have considered your cell phone provider a reliable option for regular home internet. Now, in-home 5G plans are some of the fastest-growing broadband choices in the country. Satellite broadband used to be too slow to be useful — now, low-Earth orbit satellites offer about the same internet speeds as Earth-based broadband.
Adding this competition between types of broadband to the already fierce competition between traditional broadband providers has and will continue to benefit consumers. The threat of utility regulation will pump the brakes on that competition to the detriment of consumers.
Broadband is too important to become a traditional utility. The pandemic demonstrated that broadband providers can adapt, innovate and invest to meet the needs of consumers efficiently. This adaptability and responsiveness are attributes of a competitive market, and we should encourage these qualities rather than hinder them through utility-style regulation.
As we continue to rely on broadband for work, education, healthcare and social interaction, we must recognize the unique qualities of this industry and promote a regulatory framework that fosters competition, innovation and accessibility for all.