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Tech Industry

Avoiding half measures on Net Neutrality

Tropos Networks CEO Ron Sege says Congress should look to enhanced competition, not prescriptive regulation.

In his recent op-ed, Randolph J. May of the Progress & Freedom Foundation argued that Congress could help achieve "Net neutrality" by adopting the Digital Age Communications Act.

Under that bill, network operators would be prohibited from engaging in unfair competitive practices, like blocking certain Internet content, that present a threat of abuse of significant market power.

I agree that Net neutrality is an important principle. But rather than focusing solely on a new complex and unwieldy regulatory structure to assess whether companies are obeying a particular set of rules, Congress should now establish measures that aggressively encourage additional so-called facilities-based competition in the delivery of broadband services.

In an environment in which business models, technologies and citizen requirements are changing faster than any one service provider can embrace, our legislative environment should encourage rapid deployment of a full complement of approaches to keeping our citizens well connected, well served and safe.

Rather than focusing solely on specific legislative "fixes" to ensure neutrality of an individual broadband "pipe," let's rethink our current telecom policies and choose to encourage a wide range of competitors that build a wide choice of broadband pipes to the consumer.

One way to stimulate vigorous competition is to encourage local governments to partner with the private sector or to build their own broadband networks.

Under this scheme, "old" line carriers can compete by offering advanced, prioritized services and in return accept policies that ensure vibrant competition in the local loop based on new technologies such as Wi-Fi mesh and WiMax, in both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. This means enacting laws that encourage and enable municipalities and new entrants to quickly build competing broadband infrastructure via streamlined access to rights-of-ways, and ensuring that all competitors can get access to additional unlicensed spectrum.

For example, by adopting S. 1294, the Community Broadband Act of 2005, Congress could preclude state legislatures from limiting the ability of local governments to partner with the private sector to bring broadband services to their constituents. Today 300-plus cities in the U.S. have chosen to build these networks, and hundreds more are now in the planning stages. Faced with true competition from new broadband networks, incumbent providers would be unable to use market power to erect new toll roads on the information superhighway--a true, free market solution to the risk of abuse of market power.

Similarly, Congress could free up additional spectrum in the so-called white spaces of the spectrum used by television broadcasters. One of the major limitations we and other companies have faced in seeking to offer a richer diversity of broadband services is access to UHF spectrum such as in the 700MHz range. If made available, this TV spectrum--which is twice as cost-effective to use for Wi-Fi applications--can deliver enhanced broadband services throughout the country. Enactment of white spaces legislation will help bring facilities-based competition to a broadband market that desperately needs it. It will drive innovation. It will bring high-speed Internet access to more Americans at substantially lower costs, especially in rural America.

There is ample precedent for Congress establishing the appropriate legal environment to spur competition. In 1984, for example, in order to encourage the growth of the cable industry as a competitive alternative to terrestrial broadcasting, Congress authorized the construction of cable systems over private rights-of-way, and through easements, to enable cable operators to serve large areas of metropolitan markets. In addition, Congress prohibited local governments from limiting the ability of cable operators to provide telecommunications services. Today, Congress is considering "national video franchise" legislation, something that will provide incumbent phone companies with the ability to compete with existing cable operators across the country.

As Congress now appears to recognize, most consumers are confronted with an absence of market competition for voice, video and data in most markets. They must choose between a single telephone company and a single cable company, which don't compete with each other. We know from our experience with cell phones that you need at least three competitors in a market for true competition to occur. As was the case at the dawn of the cable TV industry, we now have the technology at hand to spur additional local broadband competition. This means less regulation, more freedom of choice for consumers, lower prices and better service.

One way to stimulate vigorous competition is to encourage local governments to partner with the private sector or to build their own broadband networks, including wireless mesh networks of the kind that we and our partners built to help the citizens of New Orleans reconnect to the world after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the existing telecommunications network.

One hundred years ago, when incumbent electric companies refused to bring power to rural areas of the country and refused to extend their service to low-income areas of cities, local governments stepped in to bring electricity to their communities. High-speed access to the Internet is just as important today as electricity was then to economic development. And yet the incumbents of today are seeking to block municipal government leaders from offering broadband access for their constituents.

Beyond New Orleans, communities across America are similarly eager to enjoy the economic and social benefits of broadband access. Cities such as Philadelphia and Anaheim, Calif., have developed creative ways to partner with the private sector. San Francisco is looking at a different model. These and other local government leaders should have the freedom to choose how best to bring broadband services to their constituents.

As it considers a fundamental rewrite of our telecommunications laws, Congress can best advance the interests of consumers by aggressively encouraging a wide range of competitors and a true balance between old line carriers and new technologies, between licensed and unlicensed spectrum. With vigorous competition, we'll achieve Net neutrality for everyone.