The major broadband service providers are cable and telephone companies, which are regulated, or not, under two completely different sets of rules. There are huge differences in technology and business models, but the basic service – Internet access – is a commodity. It’s time to find a common regulatory regime.
A good starting point is to look at the the wireless industry. Regulation is split into two largely independent policy areas: 1. creation and physical management of the infrastructure – technical regulation of the allocation and use of spectrum – and 2. operational regulation – oversight of business practices and services provided to the public.
Except for increasingly limited local land use discretion, technical regulation is the sole province of the federal government and is run according to transparent, evidenced-based engineering principles. Design specifications and capital requirements are predictable and infrastructure plans are long term and quickly implemented on a national scale.
Spectrum is allocated for broadly defined purposes. Technical requirements, such as power levels, antenna design and non-interference measures, are established and enforced. Standards may be set with a particular sort of service in mind, but any service that fits within these parameters is allowed by the technical regulators.
Access to spectrum – which is held in the public trust – is managed openly and competitively. The one major restriction on spectrum auctions, for example, are rules which are intended to prevent any single company from gaining monopoly control of the market.
Otherwise, regulation is based on the type of service, and not on the underlying technology or the ancestry of the company providing it. AT&T and Sprint have to meet the same requirements for voice service, for example, even though one is a legacy landline telephone company and the other is not, and one uses GSM and the other CMDA technology.
Although volumes have been written about the deficiencies of wireless regulation in the U.S., it has produced a national, competitive and highly innovative market that continues to attract billions of dollars in capital investment every year.
Wireline broadband needs and deserves the same advantages.