To most observers of U.S. broadband policy, the regular and increasingly heated debates in this area appear to be about an evolving set of discrete issues: net neutrality, broadband privacy, set-top box competition, usage-based pricing, mergers, municipal broadband, international rankings, and so on. As each issue emerges, the factions take their positions—companies fighting for their firms’ advantage, “public interest” groups working for more regulation, free market advocates working for less, and some moderate academics and think tanks taking more nuanced and varied positions.
But at a higher level, these debates are about more than the specific issue at hand; they are subcomponents of a broader debate about the kind of broadband system America should have. One side wants to remain on the path that has brought America to where it is today: a lightly regulated industry made up of competing private companies relying on a variety of technologies. Another side, made up of mostly public interest groups and some liberal academics, rejects this, advocating instead for a heavily regulated, utility-like industry at minimum and ideally a government-owned system made up of municipal networks. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) firmly believes the former model—lightly regulated competition—is the superior one. But if we are to get broadband policy right going forward, it’s this broader strategic issue we need to identify and debate, not just narrow tactical matters.
Broadband networks are a critical part of America’s digital technology system and, as such, the issue of how to continue to drive investment and innovation in these networks is worthy of robust and sustained debate. But the broadband policy debate should be transparent about what it really involves: Is America better off with an ISP industry that is structured the way the vast majority of the U.S. economy is structured (private-sector firms competing to provide the best product or service at a competitive price, with the role of government to limit abuse and support gaps where private-sector competition does not respond), or do we want to transform this largely successful industry model into either a regulated utility monopoly model or government-owned networks? As we ponder this question, policymakers need to understand what the debate is fundamentally about and what is at stake as broadband populists push for each one of their thousand cuts.