BOULDER – Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler on Monday forcefully defended the agency’s intent to regulate the Internet as a utility, stating that the agency’s goal is to keep the ‘Net “fast, fair and open for all Americans” while encouraging incentives for investment.
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Speaking at a two-day seminar on broadband policy at the University of Colorado Boulder, Wheeler noted that “today’s Internet is the product of broadband connectivity” but that 17 percent of U.S. households – disproportionately in rural and tribal areas – don’t have access to what’s now defined as fast online speeds: 25 megabits per second for downloads and three mb/s for uploads. And for those households that do have high-speed connections, he added, “75 percent can only choose from one carrier.”
“There’s a lack of meaningful competition,” Wheeler said. “Where there is no choice, the market can’t work.”
Often, Wheeler said, connectivity issues aren’t as much about speed as about bandwidth sucked dry by simultaneous connections. “A typical American family of four has seven broadband-connected devices,” he said. “The FCC should establish a standard that makes sure innovation isn’t held back by network capacity.”
The five-person FCC will vote Feb. 26 on Wheeler’s White House-backed “net neutrality” proposal to apply “a modernized version” of Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934 to broadband providers, essentially classifying Internet service providers as public utilities, an option that cable companies and other providers have vigorously opposed. Among other things, the classification would prohibit ISPs from imposing surcharges for faster service while leaving less-wealthy customers with slower speeds. “It would ban paid prioritization, and apply equally to wired and wireless services,” he said.
Too often, service has been provided by “gatekeepers serving their own interests,” Wheeler said, adding that “in 19 states, a fair and open Internet is blocked by restrictive state laws lobbied for by incumbent broadband providers. I’m recommending that the FCC pre-empt those laws. … States should not be placing barriers on open networks.”
Opponents to the plan cite several potential pitfalls and express fears that the FCC could dictate pricing that ISPs charge consumers and content providers, thus stifling competition and innovation. Wheeler disputed that contention.
“If an industry action hurts consumers, competition or innovation,” he said, “the FCC will have the authority to throw a flag.”
Earlier Monday, Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Edith Ramirez told the audience that her agency’s goal has been to encourage “best-practices recommendations, not legislation” that would mean “more transparency for consumers, so they have options.”
She said her agency, like the FCC, is concerned about evening out the “digital divide” between wealthy and less-affluent citizens.
“For example, Boston offered people an app to locate potholes,” she said, “but that meant the data would likely be skewed toward more affluent areas. So they also issued the app to city inspectors, so other parts of the city would be covered as well.
“There might be some biases we need to be aware of,” she said. “How do we make sure Big Data is used for economic inclusion, not exclusion?”
With data breaches such as those at Anthem Blue Cross, Best Buy, Chick-fil-A and Target grabbing headlines and leaving consumers’ private information in the hands of hackers, she said, protecting personal information is more important than ever.
The FTC has been encouraging corporations to think harder about “how much information do you want to retain, for how long and accessible to whom,” Ramirez said, citing the hazards of “information trailing people.” For one consumer, she said, “every time his name was searched, the first thing that came up was a foreclosure 16 years ago.”
That’s why her agency has been advocating what Ramirez called “data hygiene,” including urging insurance companies to reassess keeping records of both current and former policyholders. “The less information you collect, the less-attractive target you’ll be,” she said, adding “That’s ‘target’ with a small ‘T’.”
Wheeler and Ramirez spoke to the closing session of a two-day conference, “The Digital Broadband Migration: First Principles for a 21st-Century Innovation Policy,” which was sponsored by the Silicon Flatirons Center and the Colorado Technology Law Journal and held at CU’s Wolf Law Building.