Fred Thomas

Senator Fred Thomas.

Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) placed controversial, sweeping regulations on the internet. The goal was worthwhile – to establish universal net neutrality rules to protect consumers and content alike. However, rather than construct a modern regulatory framework for ever-evolving services, regulators simply jammed the internet into ill-suited public utility regulations, known as Title II. This model dates back to the Great Depression, a time when the most sophisticated and advanced communications method was a rotary telephone.

The internet has famously benefited from a careful regulatory balance that allowed the internet to evolve. Avoiding heavy-handed regulations spurred on incredible growth over the last two decades. Our telecommunication abilities have skyrocketed from the days of the dial-up modem to today’s broadband and the lightning fast speeds and boundless possibilities of new wireless networks on the horizon. This exciting period of constant innovation transformed our society in ways too numerous to count. The approach was working, but officials changed it anyway.

During the debate, critics warned that applying the antiquated Title II regulations to the internet would stifle investment of new broadband infrastructure. To no one’s surprise those predictions are coming true as reports indicate that broadband investment is already lower than predicted.

When broadband companies are forced to slow down development of their networks, some of the first places to be impacted are rural areas where deployment of new technologies is more challenging and costly due to geographic limitations. So it goes without saying, the FCC’s public utility regulation has already hampered the expansion of new broadband services to rural Montanans.

It should come as no surprise that broadband investment has diminished under utility regulations. The regime put in place by the FCC essentially requires a “government permission slip” for internet companies to offer new services or experiment with new products and offerings for consumers.

That’s simply crazy and it’s the antithesis of how such an important part of our economy should function. No one should have to get permission from a government regulator to expand their business or develop new ideas.

The debate over the utility regulations has been wrongly confused with net neutrality. Repealing the FCC’s Title II regulations does not and should not equate to allowing broadband providers to slow, block or discriminate against types of specific users or content. Moreover, the ongoing regulatory back and forth on this issues has left many concerned with that net neutrality principles will never be permanently enshrined.

So let’s have Congress specifically address it.

This is a critical issue for Montana. If we want equal opportunity for students in Montana, if we want to encourage the use of technology in more sectors of our local economies to spur job creation, and if we want our burgeoning tech industry to continue to grow, we need to encourage broadband deployment and investment.

Congress needs to step in and codify open internet principles into law. This would provide certainty, encourage innovation and finally put the issue to rest.

Senator Daines will have a key role in this debate in Congress. Let us encourage him to work with his colleagues to establish clear and lasting legislation to secure net neutrality once and for all.

Senator Fred Thomas is the Senate Majority Leader in the Montana State Senate.

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