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Memo to Washington: It's the broadband, stupid

As media and networking technologies continue to converge, attention on Net neutrality should be shifted to broadband adoption, argues consultant Larry Downes.

Editors' note: This is a guest column. See Larry Downes' bio below.

As lawmakers gear up for the post-election Congress that convenes in January, the multiyear debate over new laws to keep ISPs from blocking Web sites or managing traffic in anticompetitive ways--the so-called Net neutrality rules--is heating up again.

The result can be safely predicted: more wasted energy and a continued failure by policymakers to focus on the real challenges of our increasingly important broadband infrastructure.

The latest round of fighting follows this month's midterm elections. Those who oppose additional regulations point to the strong Republican victory as an indicator that Americans want less, not more, federal interference with the Internet. So advocates for new regulations are turning their attention back to the Federal Communications Commission, an independent federal agency, which proposed detailed rules more than a year ago but has yet to finalize them. (Just this week, European Union and United Kingdom regulators rejected calls for similar legislation.)

Did Net neutrality really matter? Before the election, The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a political-action committee, secured a pledge from 95 Democratic candidates for Congress that, if elected, they would push for new federal laws strengthening neutrality rules and FCC authority over Internet service providers. When all 95 were defeated, opponents of regulation called the election results a clear rejection of the FCC's plans.

But few, if any, of the voters in these local races likely had any idea what Net neutrality even is. Had the candidates won, on the other hand, it seems inevitable that the PCCC would have claimed its own mandate. (In announcing the letter, the group crowed that Net neutrality had become an "election issue" about which voters clearly cared.)

A full two-thirds of nonusers, according to [a Commerce Department] report, "reported a lack of need or interest as their primary reason for not having broadband at home." Cost was a much lower factor. Only 4 percent cited lack of availability. Lawmakers, regulators, and policy advocates should be sobered, if not embarrassed, by this finding.

The reality is that, as TV, telephony, and the Web continue to converge at breakneck speed, Net neutrality is little more than a sideshow in a complex circus of communications regulation. Now that the election is over, every stakeholder in Washington would do well to focus on the bigger problems--those that could stall progress in one of the few bright spots in the economy. First and foremost: stimulating broadband adoption.

A troubling new report from the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (PDF) reveals that despite broadband penetration of 64 percent of all U.S. homes at the end of 2009 (up from 9 percent in 2001), a fourth of all American households still did not have a single Internet user.

Part of the explanation for this gap is not surprising. As with earlier surveys, race, education, and income levels continue to be significant determinants of broadband adoption. Rural residents continue to lag behind urban dwellers, and Americans with disabilities are significantly less likely to have a broadband connection than those without.

But one statistic sticks out, as surprising as it is disturbing. Among those with no home connection, the most frequently cited reason for not using the Internet at all is that they just don't want it. A full two-thirds of nonusers, according to the report, "reported a lack of need or interest as their primary reason for not having broadband at home." Cost was a much lower factor. Only 4 percent cited lack of availability.

Lawmakers, regulators, and policy advocates should be sobered, if not embarrassed, by this finding. Only a few months ago, after all, the FCC published its sweeping National Broadband Plan (PDF), which argued forcefully that broadband access is already essential for such basic needs as education, employment, and communication. The plan urged Congress to ensure universal broadband adoption within the next decade.

Beyond the basics, the NBP's authors concluded that broadband Internet will soon play a key role in health care, public safety, and access to government services. And without universal adoption, the development of critical future innovations including a "smart" energy grid will be slowed.

Indeed, the FCC went so far as to insist that "Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness, and a better way of life."

For a significant group of Americans, that important message has not gotten through. And perhaps that's not surprising, after all. In the months before and after the NBP was delivered, the FCC and Congress have been obsessed with regulatory minutia. Does the FCC have legal authority to "reclassify" broadband Internet access as a telephone service? Do content providers such as Fox and ESPN violate neutrality rules by limiting access to their programming online? What warnings must cell phone providers give customers who exceed their allotment of minutes?

The NBP's passionate appeal for universal adoption and digital literacy has been all but drowned out by so much white noise. That's especially disappointing, given that public education is largely all that's needed from Washington to make the plan a reality. Although the price tag for the NBP is estimated at $350 billion, almost none of it will come from taxpayers.

As Blair Levin, the plan's chief author, recently told CNET, "the gap between private investment and what's needed to accomplish the goals of the report is relatively small...we can solve about 90 percent of the broadband access problem for a relatively small amount of money--like, around $10 billion." The rest will come from industry.

Julius Genachowski
Julius Genachowski Federal Communications Commission

There are hopeful signs that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, at the very least, is getting the message. In a speech on Monday to state utility regulators, Genachowski acknowledged that the FCC must realign itself to national priorities. "The primary focus for the FCC is simple," Genachowski said plainly. It is focusing on "the economy and jobs."

He also painted a powerful vision of broadband Internet as the most disruptive technological development "in our lifetime." And as a disruptive technology, he said, the only way to capture its new value is for "large, leading companies" to "reinvent themselves."

For that reinvention to occur, the chairman acknowledged, broadband requires a different approach to regulation--one that will "spur private investment, tackle wired and wireless infrastructure issues, and promote healthy completion that benefits consumers."

So rather than propose rules for federal or state regulators to micromanage broadband access, as they did for decades with the phone system, Genachowski hinted at a more restrained approach. His speech made no mention, for example, of Net neutrality, reclassification, or the other inside-the-beltway topics he usually talks about.

But only two days later, speaking at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, the chairman fell back on old themes. He criticized Google and Verizon's decision to publish their own Net neutrality legislative framework and told attendees that the stalled Net neutrality proceeding will be concluded, once the agency's "very smart lawyers" figure out a way to overcome persistent jurisdictional problems. (Congress has so far refused to extend the agency's authority over Internet access.)

Let's hope that Genachowski is serious about his newly articulated focus and isn't pulled back into the Net neutrality quagmire. As he said, large entities have a hard time "reinventing themselves" in the face of disruptive technologies. The temptation is always to fall back on what has worked in the past, even knowing that doing so will lead to failure.

That lesson applies as much to large governments as it does to large corporations. The ambitious goals set out in the National Broadband Plan courageously address the real challenges for universal adoption head-on, with a pragmatic approach that seems likely to succeed. But it will work only if Washington can get out of its own way.