How important is it to ensure that Montanans have access to high-speed Internet? It could be the difference-maker for finding and applying to jobs, taking advantage of interactive educational resources, or starting a business. That’s why it’s imperative we improve broadband access in Montana, which means finding ways to encourage investment in Internet infrastructure.
Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) put up a major impediment to these needed infrastructure investments two years ago. At that time, the FCC put in place rules to ensure net neutrality – the doctrine that lawful internet traffic should not be blocked, slowed, or otherwise interfered with by service providers (ISPs).
The problem created by the FCC isn’t that they established rules for net neutrality — the problem is the way they went about it. In an unprecedented move they designated Internet service as a “public utility” under laws devised in the 1930s to regulate telephone networks. While that move did protect net neutrality, at the same time it also established all sorts of new hurdles that ISPs must clear when expanding or improving their services.
Unsurprisingly, this has had a negative effect on broadband investment. Last year was the first time in history where broadband investment declined outside of a recession. That’s especially bad news for states like Montana where it’s inherently harder to connect communities to the levels of broadband connectivity other states may enjoy. Unfortunately, the current FCC regulations make it harder to catch up with the rest of the country by discouraging the long-term investments needed.
But this year, leadership at the FCC changed with the new administration. The FCC is now working to reverse these problematic policies. While I believe this is the right thing to do, it does underscore a concerning trend. Are we setting ourselves up for a rollercoaster of policy changes and subsequent reversals with every new administration? That type of regulatory uncertainty can have just as serious of an impact on investment as do the existing onerous regulatory burdens.
Meanwhile, several large tech companies and website operators are advocating to keep the FCC’s public utility regulations in place, largely because they don’t have to abide by them. You may even see protest messages on popular websites this month about “saving” net neutrality. The truth is the only way to save net neutrality is through legislation.
This is where Congress needs to set clear rules into law. First and foremost, Congress should enact comprehensive net neutrality guidelines into law to protect consumers and other internet stakeholders. Additionally, Congress has the opportunity to remove the misguided public utility regulations that have hampered investment and take us back to the regulatory environment that served the internet – and its users – so well for decades.
I hope Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines will provide the necessary leadership on this important issue. Not only can their actions finally enshrine net neutrality principles into law in a way that spurs investment and improve Montanans’ Internet infrastructure, it will also put to rest this debate so we can focus on other important matters as a country.
Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, serves on the Senate Energy & Telecommunications Committee.