Blog Post

The slippery slope of FCC internet regulation

Silicon Valley, take note. On August 8, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started regulating mobile apps — and this government foray into the app space should be of concern to tech entrepreneurs as the debate over how best to ensure the open internet continues.

The nation’s four largest wireless carriers announced last year that they would deliver 911 text messages to public safety call centers, which is where emergency operators dispatch first responders. The FCC decided to convert this voluntary text-to-911 agreement into regulation and extend it across all wireless carriers and to a swath of over the top (OTT) messaging applications.

CTIA-The Wireless Association and its members certainly support text-to-911 solutions, but the expansion of regulatory mandates deeper into the mobile ecosystem should give us all pause.

Digital innovators across the country should take heed of this cautionary tale of expansive FCC regulation. The development should inform all of us in our consideration of the open internet debate, where we must be wary of the slippery slope of regulatory intrusion into every aspect of the mobile broadband ecosystem – including apps, software, and other services.

The U.S. is the global leader in mobile broadband thanks to ingenuity, investment and, in no small part, a balanced, light-touch regulatory approach. This reasonable framework — which recognizes that wireless networks rely on scarce spectrum resources and acknowledges the unique technical challenges of wireless network management — allowed the marketplace to drive the mobile revolution. Even though the U.S. has only five percent of the world’s mobile users, American wireless providers invested 24 percent of the world’s total expenditures in 2013. U.S. smartphone speeds increased eight-fold since 2010.* Since there were faster speeds and high quality networks, Americans enjoyed using their mobile devices to do everything from accessing the internet to watching videos. In fact, wireless providers in the U.S. handled over 3.2 trillion megabytes of usage in 2013 – a 732 percent increase since 2010.

Thanks to this network leadership and investment, innovation flourished throughout the U.S. mobile ecosystem.  There are over 1 million apps on Android(s GOOG) and Apple(s AAPL) platforms, and analysts expect mobile app downloads worldwide to exceed 139 billion this year. The integration of high-speed wireless into other industry sectors — healthcare, education, energy, transportation — is just beginning. M2M and the internet of things are primed for explosive growth.

Mobile broadband providers are committed to preserving an open internet because that’s what makes mobile great. But onerous additional regulations that don’t recognize the technical and operational challenges of mobility would undercut investment and give rise to great uncertainty — and in the process, hamper innovation. The entire mobile ecosystem must have the incentive and flexibility to innovate, experiment, invest, enhance its networks and services and lead the world with rules designed especially for mobile.

Protesters hold a rally near the building before the FCC meeting on net neutrality proposals on May, 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Protesters hold a rally near the building before the FCC meeting on net neutrality proposals on May, 15, 2014 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As a former FCC commissioner, I saw first-hand that, when given the opportunity, regulators will do what their job title describes: regulate. That’s why I am concerned that the sweeping authority of antiquated common carrier Title II regulations will gradually – year-by-year and seemingly innocuous action by action – extend government regulation deeper and deeper into the mobile Internet.  Yet some in the Valley seem to advocate for common carriage regulation without fully appreciating its ultimate scope and impact, and champion a framework that does not account for the real-world challenges associated with delivering high-quality mobile broadband service.

Carriers began deploying 4G/LTE service in 2010. Now, imagine your mobile Internet experience frozen in time at that point with no subsequent innovation. Imagine if new mobile app developers had to hire regulatory attorneys to navigate hundreds, if not thousands, of pages in the Code of Federal Regulations.  That is what’s at stake.  More intrusive regulation toward any sector within the internet ecosystem should concern us all.

Instead of freezing today’s broadband networks and apps, the FCC should focus on setting the stage for continued dynamic growth, investment, and innovation. I hope the entire mobile ecosystem comes together to ensure federal rules do not treat any part of the mobile economy as a monopoly-era utility and that any new regulations reflect the unique challenge of serving Americans through mobile networks with finite spectrum.

From mobile apps to wireless providers, we share a common objective: Continued development of broadband technologies to benefit our lives. We need a regulatory framework that supports that goal – not heavy-handed or inflexible government rules that hurt investment and innovation in the world’s most vibrant mobile ecosystem.

Meredith Attwell Baker is president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association. Previously, she served as an FCC commissioner and acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

*Sources: WCIS database; Cisco.

9 Responses to “The slippery slope of FCC internet regulation”

  1. Brian Burwell

    The FCC was created for the purpose of regulating radio communications; it would actually be appalling if it didn’t regulate this issue, for more than just the fact that they are supposed to regulate radio communications. If the FCC doesn’t mandate and dictate the requirements for this, it could lead to death after serious harm befalls someone. If someone had this service with one company, but unbeknownstly switches to a company doesn’t, they could try to use the service not ever knowing no one is coming to their aid until it was too late. I would imagine that the FCC will set regulations that say who have to support text-to-911, and if you don’t meet those stipulations, you don’t have to support it, but would have to make it explicitly clear you don’t offer the service, much like how VoIP and E911 works.

  2. Paul Harwood

    Complete stuff and nonsense – just the FCC doing is job. And what makes you think three US is anywhere near being the leader on mobile – or any- broadband?

  3. Daniel Berninger

    The upset expressed in the post by the CTIA President and the grief in the comments about the post have the same origin. There exists no love for telcos, because the communicating public saw little expansion of value for multiple decades. The communication sphere consisted of relatively expensive telephone calls and waiting for mail delivery as of 1996. The arrival of the Internet as a commercial proposition outside the regulatory sphere in 1996 changed the game. The subsequent non-regulated activities of the telco’s have produced enormous improvement since 1996. The LTE connection of your cell phone would have cost $10,000 per month as a wireline connection in 1996. The regulated sphere of communications was quite literally put out of business by the non-regulated sphere of communications. The imposition of regulations on “interconnected” texting (i.e. use of telephone numbers) represents one of several areas the FCC is attempting to get back in the game. The FCC relies entirely on theoretical arguments about the benefits of government intervention, but please check the actual track record and contribution of regulators to you communication experience before celebrating imposition of regulation on the Internet. Check out my columns from the early days of Gigaom if you think I am a telco apologist –

  4. Shame on you. I can’t even decide which of the flaws in this leaky argument to criticise. So now Common Carrier status will require “WhatsApp to 911”? Really? If this were true, how is it that a HTTP post (simplest API to achieve this requirement) will stiffle innovation and freeze telecoms in time?

    Shame on you Gigaom.

  5. Really? Gigaom, how much were you paid to post this and by whom?

    EG: The number of apps in an app store is not a signal of successful network speeds.

    “The US as a whole ranks 31st out of 189 countries globally and has an average download speed of 21.05 Mbps. However, in terms of mobile broadband we rank 18th, with a download speed of 11.68 Mbps.” – Ookla

    If any of the propagandist nonsense of forced and unrelated comparisons Mrs Baker writes was in fact true, it would only be true under a free market system that did not include unnatural monopolies already protected by legislation promoted by said monopolies and driven by lobbyists. Then and only then, could some of Mrs Bakers rhetoric make sense.

    But alas, that is not the world we live in, so we do in fact need government to protect us from government; essentially legislating and warring against itself so the consumer has any chance at being globally competitive.

    I wish it were not so, I do wish the fantasy world Mrs Baker speaks of existed but it does not.

    Title II is the nuke, it’s the final option, but when you have these unnatural monopolies shoving money / bribes in any open pocket they find, what else can one do?

  6. Shame on Gigaom , you need to delete this and apologize but not before locking this author back in the Fox News building.
    It’s unethical and it’s insulting for you to host this garbage.

    Then again, just this and it’s enough to understand why they need to be put behind bars, literally..
    I am not sure i’ll ever visit Gigaom again, what’s next an open letter from Hitler?

  7. Since when does gigaom print lobbyist messages? How is this valuable and independent journalism? Why would you print an obvious paid lobbyist spot as if it were an independent viewpoint?