The Chicken Littles of Broadband

James Gattuso /

Is the Internet in clear and present danger? Yes, say proponents of neutrality regulation of the Internet. In a speech last month calling for FCC neutrality regulation, Chairman Julius Genachowski stopped short of quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, but did all he could to paint a dire picture of the Internet’s future: “This is not about protecting the Internet against imaginary dangers,” he said. If we wait too long to preserve a free and open Internet, it will be too late.”

The warning evoked a certain sense of deja vu, and for good reason. As Link Hoewing of Verizon pointed out the other day, proponents of neutrality regulation “have been yelling ‘fire’ in the movie theater ever since 1999,” when they decried the trend toward cable firms providing exclusive ISP service on broadband networks, saying that the move would result in “more price increases and fewer choices for consumers and content providers alike.”

The end has been nigh many times since. In 2003, when a court upheld the FCC’s decision not to regulate broadband as a telecommunications service, Commissioner Michael Copps said “the Internet may be dying,” glumly predicting that if the Commission continued its free-market policies, “we will look back, shake our heads and wonder whatever happened to that open, dynamic and liberating Internet that once we knew.”

Not to be outdone, in 2006, as the debate over tiered pricing raged, Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy also warned of the “end of the Internet,” stating that “without proactive intervention, the values and issues that we care about–civil rights, economic justice, the environment and fair elections–will be further threatened by this push for corporate control”.

The predictions of the Internet’s death, however, were not just exaggerated, they were wrong. Monumentally wrong. As Hoewing points out, the entry-level price for broadband service was $50 per month in 2001, dropped to $33 in 2004, and to $25 in 2007. And more people are using it — seven of ten households were still using dial-up in 2004, today only 1 in 10 do. And typical broadband speeds have more than doubled in that time.

Genachowski may have had these facts in mind when, in last month’s speech, he said: “This is about preserving and maintaining something profoundly successful and ensuring that it’s not distorted or undermined”.

Well put. And that’s exactly why we must not impose new and unneeded regulation on the Internet.

Cross-posted at techliberation.org