Robert Steele

Robert Steele

Among the tools that are available to help working class families rise up and attain a measure of financial stability and success, few have more impact than high-speed Internet access. Here in Illinois, broadband connections and a seemingly infinite array of high-tech apps and services are transforming nearly every facet of life. Critical government services are increasingly only found online. Banking services, too, are much more convenient and accessible on the Internet, as are the wealth of social media platforms that allow us to stay more engaged with our communities.

The success of broadband here and across the country is due to several important factors that have worked in concert for more than a decade. First is the tens of billions of dollars invested in broadband networks every year – the largest public works program in history. Without such an enormous and sustained investment in infrastructure, we would still be using dial-up. And second is nonstop innovation in the content that we consume daily: YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Facebook, and Pandora all were made possible by the universal availability of fast Internet.

Supporting all of these gains has been a hidden but critical third factor: a consistent set of federal policies that have stoked competition and driven innovation by firms throughout this sector. In practice, these policies have long acted as an important protector of the “open Internet,” which is shorthand for the principle that all content and usage is equal online. This is what has made the Internet the most unique and impactful engine for social and economic progress in history.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the body that has been exploring this issue, approved net-neutrality rules, reclassifying the Internet as a telecommunications service. The legislation follows a raging debate in D.C. about how to ensure that the Internet remains open and accessible to all. Some have argued that any intervention by the FCC should seek to preserve the forces and dynamics of the current market for broadband. In many ways, this seemed like a logical approach for the FCC since there is scant evidence of a compelling need to radically change anything. And yet, there are some who argued that a dramatic course correction is needed to protect against theoretical harms. In particular, these self-proclaimed “netroots” advocates want the FCC to adopt rules that were originally applied to a monopoly provider of the rotary telephone (remember that?) in an effort to “protect” consumers.

Thursday’s vote will protect the integrity of individuals using the Internet. If the FCC officially accepted the theory that broadband should be regulated like the telephone, investment in networks would likely slow down dramatically; and that would launch a downward spiral of inequality: less deployment and less innovation, and thus less reason to adopt broadband. Even the tiniest of contractions in a space that has known only growth would be harmful to all, but especially to those who have yet to come online.

I applaud Congressman Bobby Rush for his tireless efforts to preserve the kind of open Internet that Illinois has enjoyed and benefitted from for many years. Congressman Rush has been steadfast in telling the FCC that what’s best for Illinois and the nation is to avoid adopting rules meant for rotary phones. Going down that path would have been ruinous to today’s otherwise bright digital future.

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