Media in the 21st century is characterized by the convergence of content, communication, and connectivity. This means that the future of the Internet is also the future of the television. Recent Open Internet regulations created by the Federal Communications Commission are indicative of one thing: Congress has not done its job to keep pace with evolving technologies.
In fact, the last time Congress looked at telecommunications law, Americans didn’t even have dial-up, let alone an Internet-connected smartphone.
It is understandable that the FCC has introduced protections for the digital age. But with nine lawsuits against its new policies, it’s not clear what form of the Open Internet rules will persist or whether they will even survive at all. Until the highest court rules on their fate, Open Internet will remain in question. The needed solution is legislative action that establishes recent FCC actions as the rules of the 21st century playing field.
The basis of contemporary television policy was established 88 years ago. Continued innovation requires a regulatory framework built on modern systems, not a haphazard scaffolding of rules enacted nearly a century ago when television was only an imagined technology.
These regulatory acts weren’t perfect, but they provided a foundation for broadcasting industries that thrived for decades. It is fair to surmise that the legislators who wrote these acts could not have fathomed the Internet any more than the Founding Fathers. Digital IP distribution has changed the nature of broadcast technologies and morphed “cable” from an alternative television distribution system into an essential provider of digital video, voice, and data.
Even though video transmission has transitioned to a combination of cable and fiber, the policies governing it have remained remarkably unchanged. Congress has left the FCC stymied — trying to preserve concepts such as localism and diversity as they were understood in the network era — while the entire telecommunication landscape has changed. The challenge of establishing the future of communication policy cannot simply be added to the duties of a regulatory agency still burdened with meting out broadcast licenses.
Since the onset of the Internet age, American businesses and residents alike have benefited mightily from new technologies. For example, right here in Detroit, Marc Hudson and Edi Dimaj’s newly founded Rocket Fiber Internet service intends to blow traditional services out of the water by offering gigabit speeds. MLive recently reported that, “As of March 2015 Kansas City is the city with the fastest internet speed in the U.S., with an average of 96.66 megabits per second. Austin is in second with 74.65 megabits per second. Rocket Fiber could bump up Detroit's average significantly, but the Detroit-made internet service will already be one of a kind.” This type of next generation service will help close Detroit’s digital divide and advantage small businesses in the area.
Clear regulatory action asserting Open Internet as the law of the land encourages such entrepreneurial endeavors. An outdated regulatory regime cannot respond to the complicated intersection of technologies, delivery services, and content providers now the norm. The next wave of innovation will require a bold act from Congressional leadership showcasing America’s commitment to an Open Internet.
We need legislative action that will establish a clear foundation for the future of the country’s Internet. It’s time for Congress to fulfill their duties and make lasting rules to protect American innovation by legislating an Open Internet.
Amanda D. Lotz is associate professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan. Roslyn Layton is Ph.D. Fellow at the center for communication, media and information technologies at Aalborg university in Copenhagen.