FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s explanation of why he will propose regulating the Internet under Title II is full of references to the past. Perhaps that makes sense considering his proposal would regulate the Internet under the 80-year-old Telecommunications Act. But his words speak volumes about his misunderstanding of how best to balance an open Internet with 21st Century regs.
A large part of Chairman Wheeler’s argument rests on his own experience in the 1980s when he was president of a startup called NABU. The young company offered high-speed Internet service (at the time, 1.5 megabits per second) over cable television lines.
But NABU was thoroughly demolished by AOL. Wheeler claims that the sole reason AOL’s slower service won out over NABU was because AOL founder Steve Case was able to offer AOL over the open phone lines while NABU had to ask each cable company for permission to use their lines. Open vs. closed … an open and shut case.
But the real history of NABU is more nuanced than that. According to Scott Wallsten at the Technology Policy Institute, NABU users not only had to pay a fee for the service, they also had to buy or lease a $299 NABU computer. But NABU couldn’t offer enough content to induce people to pay that kind of money.
Also the technology wasn’t quite there yet. According to Wallsten:
Cable TV systems were not built to handle much upstream traffic—an issue they still face today. Upgrading the cable infrastructure for two-way communication required significant investment.
The timing just wasn’t right for NABU and that had more to do with innovation than with regulation. AOL out-innovated NABU.
We need our leaders to be looking forward, not back. By the time this gets litigated, President Obama and Chairman Wheeler will be out of office, and we have no idea how future leaders will apply these new rules. Wheeler’s post shows the need for legislation that modernizes our technology laws instead of trying to regulate a constantly evolving technology using outdated ideas. As such, it’s time for Congress to step up and work together on a bipartisan basis to craft (and pass) legislation that will remove the uncertainty that comes from electoral musical chairs, because we’re looking at very different regulatory framework if, for example, Jeb Bush rather than Hillary Clinton becomes the next President of our great nation.