The country's top communications regulator Tuesday made the case that high-speed, ubiquitous broadband is an essential ingredient for robust economic growth, arguing forcefully that the government has a role to play in facilitating infrastructure expansion and fostering competition.
That includes the controversial net neutrality order that a divided Federal Communications Commission passed two years ago, which Chairman Julius Genachowski praised as a "commonsense" policy that has demonstrated the merits of a "light-touch" regulatory approach, preserving fairness in the market without stifling investment and innovation.
"We need to preserve open platforms. It's the Internet's openness and freedom, the ability to speak, innovate and engage in commerce and free enterprise without having to ask for anyone's permission that's enabled its unparalleled success. It's why we adopted commonsense rules of the road to preserve a free and open Internet, and to foster the virtuous cycle of massive investment in both edge and the core of broadband networks," Genachowski said.
"These rules," he continued said, "have increased certainty and predictability for innovators and investors throughout the space."
Of course, critics of the 2010 order -- and there are many -- contend that the FCC overstepped its authority with prescriptive regulations that shackle Internet service providers with a burdensome new set of network-management restrictions. And opponents would be quick to challenge Genachowski's assertion that the net neutrality order has propelled investment in network infrastructure. Verizon and MetroPCS are challenging the rules in court.
The FCC's rules are poised to go through another test, with public-interest groups planning to bring a formal complaint before the commission challenging AT&T's move to block the popular FaceTime videoconferencing app for users who don't subscribe to a Mobile Share plan.
Genachowski, speaking at the Washington office of Vox Media, declined to comment directly on the AT&T dustup save to say that it highlights the original rationale for the net neutrality order.
"We're going to continue to have disputes and issues that arise under [the] open Internet framework. This is one that could very well come before us in a formal way, so I shouldn't comment on it specifically," he said, expressing his preference that industry players resolve such disputes through multi-stakeholder forums common to the evolution of the Internet. But when positions are intractable, he said, the FCC needs to step in and weigh the facts to determine if a violation took place.
"We adopted the open Internet rules because that doesn't always lead to success. And sometimes good faith efforts don't resolve things," he said.
Genachowski's larger message was that through the joint work of the public and private sectors, the country must redouble its efforts to achieve high-speed, high-capacity, ubiquitous broadband, reinforcing the policy direction the FCC has adopted since he took the reins in 2009.
Those efforts have produced a national broadband plan outlining a goal of delivering service with speeds of 100 megabits per second to 100 million households by 2020, as well as initiatives to free up more spectrum for wireless networks and revamp a federal telecom subsidy to support broadband.
"Some say government has no role to play here. Government should just eliminate existing rules and policies on its way out the door. Now, as someone who has spent more than a decade in the private sector and believes fundamentally in the power of the free market, I disagree with that view. We don't have to choose between having broadband policies that drive global leadership and believing in a free market. It's a false choice," Genachowski said. "Government has a role to play. Limited, but vital. Light touch, not no touch."
Genachowski touted the progress that network operators have made, particularly in 4G LTE on the mobile side, in expanding their networks, though he cautioned that more steps need to be taken on both the deployment and adoption sides of the equation, positioning broadband as a competitive imperative for the United States in the modern global economy.
That will include a set of so-called incentive auctions the FCC proposes to hold to reallocate spectrum from television broadcasters to mobile broadband networks, offering TV stations that give up their spectrum licenses a cut of the auction proceeds. The FCC is set to vote on a notice of proposed rulemaking on the incentive auctions at its monthly meeting this Friday.
Genachowski also spoke -- somewhat vaguely -- about the need to preserve and strengthen competition in the broadband sector, again asserting the government's role in scrutinizing the industry and, when appropriate, forcing divestitures or blocking proposed transactions or giving them conditional approval, and then vigorously enforcing those conditions. "The FCC needs to be a cop on the beat," he said.
He also reiterated his opposition to a proposal set to come up for debate in a global meeting in December in Dubai that would grant new Internet oversight authorities to the International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations. On Saturday, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution expressing opposition to the proposal, echoing a similar measure the House had passed earlier this year. The Obama administration has also come out against the U.N. measure.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.