Why Obama Took the Lead on High-Speed Internet Access Policy
The president has always talked the talk on net neutrality and access. But now he’s walking the walk. What happened?
Five years ago, when the Obama administration was still wet behind the ears and hugely popular, the Obama Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a National Broadband Plan that talked a lot about the magic of spectrum but said almost nothing about competition policy. (The Plan did recommend in Section 8.19, “Congress should make clear that state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks.”) In particular, the plan did not recommend that the FCC use its authority under the 1996 Telecommunications Act to act like a regulator when dealing with the providers of high-speed Internet access. Nor did the plan mention net neutrality. The idea was, apparently, that focusing on net neutrality — then seen as a polarizing, touchy subject — would doom the success of the plan, which got a big roll-out, a major media push and a splashy new Web site.
But in the last couple months everything changed. Few people still remember that we even have a National Broadband Plan. But the President has directly taken on the subject of high-speed Internet access with a kind of exuberant zeal. Net neutrality is no longer a radioactive term but a bopping slogan. He’s having fun, and he knows he’s right.
Let’s roll the tape. He made a major Law-Professor-in-Chief assertion in November that the FCC should use its existing legal authority and be a cop on the beat when it comes to high-speed Internet access. As he put it, “I am asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.” The Commission had been tying itself in knots by simultaneously claiming that Internet access wasn’t a regulated service but was subject to “Open Internet” rules. The President seemed to understand that after this argument had twice been labeled a loser by the D.C. Circuit, “once more with feeling” was no longer a sustainable strategy. Enough was enough. Just regulate. (The legal shorthand for this step, “Title II,” rolled right off his tongue; clearly he’s heard a lot from many people about this issue.)
Then, last week in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the President was relaxed and on his game as he talked about basketball and midwestern weather. And then he praised the city for its “visionary” move of investing in a community network twenty years ago in order to “add another option to the market.” He went further: he applauded Cedar Rapids for noticing that people needed greater capacity and upgrading its public option to a fiber network. “Basically,” he said, “you guys were like the captain in Jaws, where he said, ‘We’re going to need a bigger boat.’” He got a laugh.
And he was strong: he said his administration would do everything in its power to lower the barriers created by 19 credulous state legislatures that now interfere with a mayor’s ability to call for better, more inexpensive Internet access over fiber optics.
To top it off, his State of the Union address this past week included a powerful signal to the FCC to stay the course. “I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world,” he said, his chin up.
Word is that we’ll soon have a raft of proposed FCC actions that do all these things: reclassify Internet access as a regulated service (which is what it used to be before we took a strange swerve into deregulation under then-FCC Chairman, now-cable advocate in chief Michael Powell); adopt genuine net neutrality rules under that new classification; say something about interconnection, so as to deal with the crushing power I described in Jammed; reject the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable; and block the effect of those interfering state laws.
Where did this Happy Warrior of telecom come from? And where was he five years ago?
No one will ever really know. But here are some elements that may have made a difference.
First, those four million-plus comments in the Open Internet rule-making at the FCC must have caught someone’s attention. Even if the insular world of telecom policy wonks still cares only about what the telecom execs have to say, there must be people in the administration who are actually looking up and out.
The 2009 Obama Administration felt comfortable ensuring that AIG executives got their bonuses even as the country was sliding towards economic ignominy. Today, with middle-class incomes, opportunities and choices diminishing, other voices have relevance — not because the administration wants to foster class warfare, but because the corrosive effects of inequality pose staggering problems for the nation’s overall future success. And other, not-so-well-paid voices are saying they’ve had enough of the unsupervised shenanigans of the telecom incumbents: we’re all paying too much for inferior service. Aligning with those voices feels like the right thing to do.
Second, the President isn’t running for office again. That’s right, he won twice. Now he can take on Comcast and Verizon with panache if he feels like it. He can suggest a “public option” for high-speed Internet access; in contrast, five years ago, the idea of a public option as part of the Affordable Care Act was a non-starter.
Freed of the restraint of raising money for the next race, he can act like a leader rather than a politician and plan for the long-term public narrative of America. World-class, inexpensive, reliable Internet access, for everyone, is the necessary foundation for the new ideas and new ways of making a living that the country has to have in order to remain relevant on the global stage. He likely understands that without long-range thinking and government involvement we will never get there. During the State of the Union the President listed Internet access along with roads and bridges as essential infrastructure in which public investment should be an easy, bipartisan call. That was a momentous addition.
Third, the media alliances on high-speed Internet access issues have shifted. A few years ago powerful media companies strived to stay on the sunny side of Verizon and Comcast, whom they saw as allies in protecting their content from piracy. So in 2009 they generally sided with those carriers in opposing net neutrality intervention. In 2015, however, the networks and studios may now be a bit more worried about giving control over their destinies to giants such as Comcast—a competitor as well as the nation’s biggest carrier. Indeed, if the President is counting corporate noses, just about every major industry is on the side of better, cheaper, more resilient, open Internet access except the carriers themselves.
Open Internet wonks can pop the champagne corks. We’re two for two: Title II and community fiber. Someday, maybe, we’ll have industrial policy that calls for cheap open fiber access for every home and business in America. But for now, it’s great to see the President assume the mantle of leadership on this issue. He looks good in it.
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