FCC Statement on "Third Way" for Broadband Policy

Many have asked about the FCC’s next steps in view of the recent decision in the Comcast case. I’ll describe here a path forward, which will begin with seeking public comment on a post-Comcast legal foundation for the FCC’s approach to broadband communications services.


Chairman Julius GenachowskiFederal Communications CommissionMay 6, 2010

Many have asked about the FCC’s next steps in view of the recent decision in the Comcast case. I’ll describe here a path forward, which will begin with seeking public comment on a post-Comcast legal foundation for the FCC’s approach to broadband communications services. The goal is to restore the broadly supported status quo consensus that existed prior to the court decision on the FCC’s role with respect to broadband Internet service.

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This statement describes a framework to support policies that advance our global competitiveness and preserve the Internet as a powerful platform for innovation, free speech, and job creation. I remain open to all ideas on the best approach to achieve our country’s vital goals with respect to high-speed broadband for all Americans, and the Commission proceeding to follow will seek comment on multiple legal theories and invite new ideas.

The FCC’s Mission

More than 75 years ago, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission with an explicit mission: “to make available, so far as possible, to all people of the United States . . . A rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, [and] for the purpose of promoting the safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communication.”

In the decades since, the technologies of communications have changed and evolved—from telephone, radio, and broadcast TV to cable, satellite, mobile phones, and now broadband Internet. With the guidance of Congress, the Commission has tailored its approach to each of these technologies. But the basic goals have been constant: to encourage private investment and the building of a communications infrastructure that reaches all Americans wherever they live; to pursue meaningful access to that infrastructure for economic and educational opportunity and for full participation in our democracy; to protect and empower consumers; to promote competition; to foster innovation, economic growth, and job creation; and to protect Americans’ safety.

The Consensus Understanding of the FCC’s Role with Respect to Broadband

A challenge for the FCC in recent years has been how to apply the time-honored purposes of the Communications Act to our 21st Century communications platform—broadband Internet—access to which is generally provided by the same companies that provide telephone and cable television services.

Broadband is increasingly essential to the daily life of every American. It is fast becoming the primary way we as Americans connect with one another, do business, educate ourselves and our children, receive health care information and services, and express our opinions. As a unanimous FCC said a few weeks ago in our Joint Statement on Broadband, “Working to make sure that America has world-leading high-speed broadband networks—both wired and wireless—lies at the very core of the FCC’s mission in the 21st Century.”

Over the past decade and a half, a broad consensus in the public and private sectors has developed about the proper role and authority for the FCC regarding broadband communications. This bipartisan consensus, which I support, holds that the FCC should adopt a restrained approach to broadband communications, one carefully balanced to unleash investment and innovation while also protecting and empowering consumers.

It is widely understood—and I am of the view—that the extreme alternatives to this light-touch approach are unacceptable. Heavy-handed prescriptive regulation can chill investment and innovation, and a do-nothing approach can leave consumers unprotected and competition unpromoted, which itself would ultimately lead to reduced investment and innovation.The consensus view reflects the nature of the Internet itself as well as the market for access to our broadband networks. One of the Internet’s greatest strengths—its unprecedented power to foster technological, economic, and social innovation—stems in significant part from the absence of any central controlling authority, either public or private. The FCC’s role, therefore should not involve regulating the Internet itself.

Consumers do need basic protection against anticompetitive or otherwise unreasonable conduct by companies providing the broadband access service (e.g., DSL, cable modem, or fiber) to which consumers subscribe for access to the Internet. It is widely accepted that the FCC needs backstop authority to prevent these companies from restricting lawful innovation or speech, or engaging in unfair practices, as well as the ability to develop policies aimed at connecting all Americans to broadband, including in rural areas.

The Broadband Policy Agenda

Consistent with this consensus view of the FCC’s role, Congress last year directed the FCC to develop America’s first National Broadband Plan, which we delivered in March. And I have described over the past months the policy initiatives I believe are of crucial importance to our global competiveness, job creation, and broad opportunity. These include:

• Extending broadband communications to all Americans, in rural and urban America and in between, by transforming the $9 billion Universal Service Fund from supporting legacy telephone service to supporting broadband communications service;• Protecting consumers and promoting healthy competition by, for example, providing greater transparency regarding the speeds, services, and prices consumers receive, and ensuring that consumers—individuals as well as small businesses—are treated honestly and fairly;• Empowering consumers to take control of their personal information so that they can use broadband communications without unknowingly sacrificing their privacy;• Lowering the costs of investment—for example, through smart policies relating to rights-of-way—in order to accelerate and extend broadband deployment;• Advancing the critical goals of protecting Americans against cyber-attacks, extending 911 coverage to broadband communications, and otherwise protecting the public’s safety; and• Working to preserve the freedom and openness of the Internet through high-level rules of the road to safeguard consumers’ right to connect with whomever they want; speak freely online; access the lawful products and services of their choice; and safeguard the Internet’s boundless promise as a platform for innovation and communication to improve our education and health care, and help deliver a clean energy future.

At the same time, I have been clear about what the FCC should not do in the area of broadband communications: For example, FCC policies should not include regulating Internet content, constraining reasonable network management practices of broadband providers, or stifling new business models or managed services that are pro-consumer and foster innovation and competition. FCC policies should also recognize and accommodate differences between management of wired networks and wireless networks, including the unique congestion issues posed by spectrum-based communications. The Internet has flourished and must continue to flourish because of innovation and investment throughout the broadband ecosystem: at the core of the network, at its edge, and in the cloud. ~~

These policies reflect an essential underlying regulatory philosophy:

• A strong belief in the free market and in private investment as essential and powerful engines of economic growth;• An embrace of the view that a healthy return on investment is a necessary and desirable incentive to risk-taking and deployment of capital;• A recognition of the powerful role entrepreneurs, innovators, startups and small businesses must play in fueling American economic success; and• An understanding that government has a vital but limited role in advancing common goals, for example by helping tackle core infrastructure and public safety challenges; providing basic rules of the road to enable markets to work fairly; acting in a properly calibrated way when necessary to protect consumers and promote competition, investment, and innovation—and otherwise getting out of the way of the entrepreneurial genius and free market that is America’s greatest competitive advantage.

Implications of Comcast v. FCC

The recent court opinion in Comcast v. FCC does not challenge the longstanding consensus about the FCC’s important but restrained role in protecting consumers, promoting competition, and ensuring that all Americans can benefit from broadband communications. Nor does it challenge the commonsense policies we have been pursuing.

But the opinion does cast serious doubt on the particular legal theory the Commission used for the past few years to justify its backstop role with respect to broadband Internet communications. The opinion therefore creates a serious problem that must be solved so that the Commission can implement important, commonsense broadband policies, including reforming the Universal Service Fund to provide broadband to all Americans, protecting consumers and promoting competition by ensuring transparency regarding broadband access services, safeguarding the privacy of consumer information, facilitating access to broadband services by persons with disabilities, protecting against cyber-attacks, ensuring next-generation 911 services for broadband communications, and preserving the free and open Internet.

The legal theory that the Comcast opinion found inadequate has its roots in a series of controversial decisions beginning in 2002 in which the Commission decided to classify broadband Internet access service not as a “telecommunications service” for purposes of the Communications Act, but as something different—an “information service.”  

As a result of these decisions, broadband became a type of service over which the Commission could exercise only indirect “ancillary” authority, as opposed to the clearer direct authority exercised over telecommunications services. Importantly, at the time, supporters of this “information services” approach clearly stated that the FCC’s so-called “ancillary” authority would be more than sufficient for the Commission to play its backstop role with respect to broadband access services and pursue all sensible broadband policies.The Commission’s General Counsel and many other lawyers believe that the Comcast decision reduces sharply the Commission’s ability to protect consumers and promote competition using its “ancillary” authority, and creates serious uncertainty about the Commission’s ability, under this approach, to perform the basic oversight functions, and pursue the basic broadband-related policies, that have been long and widely thought essential and appropriate.

This undermining of settled understandings about the government’s role in safeguarding our communications networks is untenable. Since the decision, lawyers from every quarter of the communications landscape have been debating a difficult and technical legal question: What is the soundest and most appropriate legal grounding to let the FCC carry out what almost everyone agrees to be necessary functions regarding broadband communications? ~~

The Conventional Options

Two primary options have been debated since the Comcast decision:

One, the Commission could continue relying on Title I “ancillary” authority, and try to anchor actions like reforming universal service and preserving an open Internet by indirectly drawing on provisions in Title II of the Communications Act (e.g., sections 201, 202, and 254) that give the Commission direct authority over entities providing “telecommunications services.”

Two, the Commission could fully “reclassify” Internet communications as a “telecommunications service,” restoring the FCC’s direct authority over broadband communications networks but also imposing on providers of broadband access services dozens of new regulatory requirements.

I have serious reservations about both of these approaches.

The FCC General Counsel advises that under the first option, continuing to pursue policies with respect to broadband Internet access under the ancillary authority approach has a serious risk of failure in court. It would involve a protracted, piecemeal approach to defending essential policy initiatives designed to protect consumers, promote competition, extend broadband to all Americans, pursue necessary public safety measures, and preserve the free and open Internet.

The concern is that this path would lead the Commission straight back to its current uncertain situation—and years will have passed without actually implementing the key policies needed to improve broadband in America and enhance economic growth and broad opportunity for all Americans.

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