The slippery slope of FCC internet regulation

Silicon Valley, take note. On August 8, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started regulating mobile apps — and this government foray into the app space should be of concern to tech entrepreneurs as the debate over how best to ensure the open internet continues.

The nation’s four largest wireless carriers announced last year that they would deliver 911 text messages to public safety call centers, which is where emergency operators dispatch first responders. The FCC decided to convert this voluntary text-to-911 agreement into regulation and extend it across all wireless carriers and to a swath of over the top (OTT) messaging applications.

CTIA-The Wireless Association and its members certainly support text-to-911 solutions, but the expansion of regulatory mandates deeper into the mobile ecosystem should give us all pause.

Digital innovators across the country should take heed of this cautionary tale of expansive FCC regulation. The development should inform all of us in our consideration of the open internet debate, where we must be wary of the slippery slope of regulatory intrusion into every aspect of the mobile broadband ecosystem – including apps, software, and other services.

The U.S. is the global leader in mobile broadband thanks to ingenuity, investment and, in no small part, a balanced, light-touch regulatory approach. This reasonable framework — which recognizes that wireless networks rely on scarce spectrum resources and acknowledges the unique technical challenges of wireless network management — allowed the marketplace to drive the mobile revolution. Even though the U.S. has only five percent of the world’s mobile users, American wireless providers invested 24 percent of the world’s total expenditures in 2013. U.S. smartphone speeds increased eight-fold since 2010.* Since there were faster speeds and high quality networks, Americans enjoyed using their mobile devices to do everything from accessing the internet to watching videos. In fact, wireless providers in the U.S. handled over 3.2 trillion megabytes of usage in 2013 – a 732 percent increase since 2010.

Thanks to this network leadership and investment, innovation flourished throughout the U.S. mobile ecosystem.  There are over 1 million apps on Android(s GOOG) and Apple(s AAPL) platforms, and analysts expect mobile app downloads worldwide to exceed 139 billion this year. The integration of high-speed wireless into other industry sectors — healthcare, education, energy, transportation — is just beginning. M2M and the internet of things are primed for explosive growth.

Mobile broadband providers are committed to preserving an open internet because that’s what makes mobile great. But onerous additional regulations that don’t recognize the technical and operational challenges of mobility would undercut investment and give rise to great uncertainty — and in the process, hamper innovation. The entire mobile ecosystem must have the incentive and flexibility to innovate, experiment, invest, enhance its networks and services and lead the world with rules designed especially for mobile.

Protesters hold a rally near the building before the FCC meeting on net neutrality proposals on May, 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Protesters hold a rally near the building before the FCC meeting on net neutrality proposals on May, 15, 2014 in Washington, DC.
(Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As a former FCC commissioner, I saw first-hand that, when given the opportunity, regulators will do what their job title describes: regulate. That’s why I am concerned that the sweeping authority of antiquated common carrier Title II regulations will gradually – year-by-year and seemingly innocuous action by action – extend government regulation deeper and deeper into the mobile Internet.  Yet some in the Valley seem to advocate for common carriage regulation without fully appreciating its ultimate scope and impact, and champion a framework that does not account for the real-world challenges associated with delivering high-quality mobile broadband service.

Carriers began deploying 4G/LTE service in 2010. Now, imagine your mobile Internet experience frozen in time at that point with no subsequent innovation. Imagine if new mobile app developers had to hire regulatory attorneys to navigate hundreds, if not thousands, of pages in the Code of Federal Regulations.  That is what’s at stake.  More intrusive regulation toward any sector within the internet ecosystem should concern us all.

Instead of freezing today’s broadband networks and apps, the FCC should focus on setting the stage for continued dynamic growth, investment, and innovation. I hope the entire mobile ecosystem comes together to ensure federal rules do not treat any part of the mobile economy as a monopoly-era utility and that any new regulations reflect the unique challenge of serving Americans through mobile networks with finite spectrum.

From mobile apps to wireless providers, we share a common objective: Continued development of broadband technologies to benefit our lives. We need a regulatory framework that supports that goal – not heavy-handed or inflexible government rules that hurt investment and innovation in the world’s most vibrant mobile ecosystem.

Meredith Attwell Baker is president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association. Previously, she served as an FCC commissioner and acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

*Sources: WCIS database; Cisco.