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Ford and Sununu: Protect ‘Internet Ecosystem’ by Avoiding Excess Regulation

Industry, consumer advocates, and lawmakers agree — a rare thing indeed — that high-speed Internet is integral to the health of America’s economy. In many ways, that consensus represents a strong endorsement of the light-touch regulatory approach that has underpinned this success to date.

It is incumbent on members of Congress to push to maintain this approach, especially as they prepare to work with a new Federal Communications Commission chair during President Obama’s second term.

Despite a national economy that has been searching for its footing for years, investment in Internet infrastructure has grown, high-speed access continues to increase, and the FCC recently reported that broadband penetration — or accessibility — is growing in the United States.

Today, smartphones and wireless data connections have become ubiquitous. A dramatic expansion of “connected” homes and machine-to-machine communication is around the corner. This acceleration in technology deployment reflects an industry that is constantly changing, driven by incredible innovation in software development, data management, and smart networks.

This extraordinary growth during the past 15 years was made possible by a government philosophy that encouraged private investment, promoted competition, and had a limited role in Internet regulation. These policies, which began under President Bill Clinton’s Federal Communications Commission chairman, William Kennard, and have continued under subsequent administrations, were praised by the FCC’s National Broadband Plan as having led to unprecedented levels of high-speed broadband deployment, innovation and private investment in broadband Internet.

From 2008 to 2011, the private sector invested more than $250 billion in high-speed Internet infrastructure, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and facilitating the rapid deployment of the next-generation communications networks that have delivered incredible economic and societal benefits in areas ranging from health care to education. Even in tough economic times, the high-speed Internet ecosystem has been a bright spot. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski recently referred to broadband as an “engine of economic growth” and said few areas of the economy can rival its job-creating innovation potential.

Today, broadband access to the Internet is available to 97 percent of the U.S. population, providing increased opportunity to Americans regardless of education, income or geographic location. Over 80 percent of U.S. homes are passed by broadband wires hitting 100 Mbps, “near the top of the world,” according to Chairman Genachowski.

The United States’ light-touch policy stance has been so successful that the international community is now looking towards America for policy guidance. European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes recently lamented the fact that European communications providers are not investing at the same pace as their American counterparts, and noted that in the United States, “high-speed networks now pass more than 80 percent of homes; a figure that quadrupled in three years.”

But to maintain this momentum and build on this success, America must avoid the regulatory creep that could interfere with the growing number of competitors, content providers and innovators across the Internet ecosystem. Public policy must continue to incentivize, rather than impede, investment by the private sector.

We should eliminate old policies and rules that are out of sync with today’s competitive Internet market and replace them with intelligent regulations that are based on market realities. The inevitable transition to Internet Protocol-based communications networks is a chance to do just that. This transition has two paths: one that clings to the past and maintains the status quo, or one that embraces this exciting, all-IP future.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai recently endorsed moving forward with an all-IP pilot program that he believes would send a powerful message to the private sector that we intend to head down the second path. We would signal that we won’t force carriers to invest in old and new networks forever, and move closer to the day when “carriers will be able to focus exclusively on investing in the networks of tomorrow rather than maintaining the networks of yesterday.”

Encouraging sustained investment and competition will result in the continued rapid deployment of the next-generation communications networks that fuel economic growth and innovation while raising the standards of living for the entire country.

Investment powered by the private sector has brought to America, in record time, a wired and wireless Internet infrastructure second to none. Public policy that incentivizes, rather than impedes private investment in next-generation networks will serve as the backbone for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life.

A future-focused communications policy has proven its merits in the United States. Maintaining this path is critical to reaching America’s potential.

Harold Ford Jr. and John Sununu are the honorary co-chairmen of Broadband for America, a group dedicated to ensuring every American citizen has high-quality access to the Internet.

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