The United States has experienced an enormous amount of technological progress and economic gains since the creation of the internet. Companies that did not exist a short while ago are now household words and employ hundreds of thousands of people. Some company names have even become verbs, as we “google” for information and “uber” to our next destination. These developments are testaments to a long tradition of what Alexis de Tocqueville once observed as America’s “spirit of enterprise.”
Since the mid-90s, the phenomenal growth of the internet has been assisted by a light-touch regulatory approach. The World Wide Web has been left largely “unfettered by federal and state regulation,” providing consumer benefits and growth at the same time.
Nineteen years into the 21st century, the internet has become a part of American life. At a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing, the leadership of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provided an update on how more people can participate in and benefit from the new economy.
Unfortunately, burdensome regulations have sometimes gotten in the way. In 2015, the FCC chose to place the internet under Depression-era rules meant for Bell-era telephone companies. As a result, investment in broadband decreased by $4 billion between 2015 and 2016, and the pace of growth slowed. After this two year experiment, these heavy-handed dictates were repealed in 2017. Investment is now $2 billion higher, and 5.9 million new homes were connected to networks just last year. In other words, the experiment in overregulation failed and the progress since returning to lighter regulation shows that we got it right the first time.
A major priority for the FCC today is to get more of America’s rural citizens online. This digital divide between rural and urban communities leaves many people disconnected from information and markets.
Closing the divide begins with understanding where the internet is available and where it is not. The FCC collects this information and provides maps of availability. However, the agency has been using inaccurate data that often results in overbuilding in some areas and lack of coverage in others.
During the hearing, members discussed ways to fix this problem. The commission has created a $20.4–billion Rural Opportunity Fund to jumpstart broadband deployment. This should be a helpful complement to my “Broadband DATA Act,” which would collect more precise data about existing networks so that those funds will go where they are needed most.
When FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr visited the Mississippi Delta with me, he saw firsthand how rural broadband can improve life in underserved areas. New connections can deliver high-tech, high-quality health care beyond brick-and-mortar hospitals. He described how telehealth – real-time treatment from remote doctors – is allowing diabetes patients to receive the care they need even if they are far away from health-care providers.
Decades ago our government determined that rural electrification and rural telephone service were essential to our national economy. Prosperity does not belong to cities alone. We will all be better off when every citizen is connected and able to benefit and contribute.