Whether the government should regulate the Internet like a public utility is a question that's vexed members of Congress and bureaucrats for the past decade. During this time, the Federal Communications Commission has worked to cement itself as the country's Internet regulator. But the FCC’s voyage of discovery may soon come to an end: new leadership at the agency has started the process of undoing its 2015 decision to regulate Internet service providers like public utilities.
Still, the debate over the government’s proper role when it comes to the Internet remains as contentious as ever. Efforts in Congress to explicitly grant or deny the FCC the power to regulate broadband providers haven’t gained much traction, leaving the question up to the agency—and to federal courts, which review the legality of agency decisions.
Lots of Americans seem to think the FCC should enforce strict rules governing Internet service providers. To many consumers, the perceived absence of meaningful choices among these providers of the best reason for treating Internet communications differently than other sectors of the economy. But contrary to pro-net neutrality regulation activists’ claims, the state of broadband competition is not an unchangeable given. Public policy decisions are responsible for the current state of the U.S. broadband market. Changing such policies would change the level of competition.
Over the years, decisions by government officials at the federal, state, and local levels have discouraged companies from entering the broadband market. If lawmakers embraced a less restrictive, more open approach to private-sector deployment of wireline and wireless broadband infrastructure, many Americans might enjoy a more compelling array of choices among Internet service providers. In turn, greater competition among ISPs would obviate the perceived need for federal regulation of the Internet, reducing pressure on Congress and the FCC to dictate how broadband companies run their networks.
As I explain in a new CEI paper, instead of regulating the Internet in the name of keeping it free, the government should unleash the forces of market discipline in the broadband sector by reducing barriers to competition. That’s a far better way to help Americans than by saddling providers with regulatory mandates.