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Originally published Monday, August 12, 2013 at 4:15 PM

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Guest: Net neutrality would hold back innovation

Net neutrality would make it impossible for an Internet provider to offer faster speeds for a better price, writes guest columnist Ev Ehrlich.

Special to The Times

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OUR country is at a crossroads regarding how the U.S. governs the Internet. A new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Tom Wheeler, may influence the government’s relationship with the Internet like no official since the Bill Clinton administration era.

Later this year a federal court will rule on whether the FCC has the power to regulate the freewheeling, privately run Internet the way the agency did the old Ma Bell telephone network. If the court rules in favor of the FCC, government will be able to put new restrictions on how the Internet runs. It’s not clear that’s what Wheeler’s predecessors wanted.

In a 1999 speech, President Clinton’s FCC Chairman William Kennard said, “the best decision the government ever made with respect to the Internet was the decision that the FCC made ... not to impose regulation on it. This was not a dodge. ... It was intentional restraint born of humility.”

Since then, progressives who support Net neutrality have thrown out the idea of intentional restraint. Net neutrality is the doctrine that everything on the Internet must travel at the same speed and under the same conditions. Others advocate going further, arguing that investments made by providers must be shared with competitors, a doctrine known as “common carriage.”

These ideas are premised on the assertion that the Internet is a monopoly and that the U.S. is underperforming in speed and price. But data show the U.S. has risen from 22nd to ninth among nations in the speed of Internet access. Washington state ranks ninth domestically. We lead nations of similar size and low population density. We also have the lowest entry-level prices for that access of any nation save Israel.

Moreover, Internet service providers have invested $250 million since 2008 and more than $1.2 trillion since the 1996 Telecommunications Act began the Clinton administration’s quest for a privately run, publicly purposed Internet.

Critics didn’t anticipate wireless broadband competing with its wired counterpart. We are the world’s leader in adopting 4G wireless, which is quickly improving broadband availability. According to numbers released by the federal government last week, as of the end of 2012 nearly 99 percent of Americans had access to broadband speeds of 3 Mbps downstream and 768 Kbps upstream through either wired or wireless service.

Advocates’ regulatory proposals don’t match the disease. Neutrality would make it impossible for an Internet provider to offer faster speeds for a better price, meaning fewer innovations relying on better connections. For instance, if I’m having an online visit with my doctor, I don’t want our connection buffering. But neutrality makes it harder to create that uninterrupted connection.

The most important reason progressives should reject these tired theories is that they fail to further what should be the real agenda. For instance, none would lead providers to make additional investments that help close the digital divide. In fact, they would dissuade them from doing so.

If we accept the idea, as we should, that there’s a role for the government to help jump-start our underperforming sectors such as health and education, then these regulations go in the wrong direction.

Other advocates — backed by companies seeking market advantage — want to limit who can participate in future government auctions of airwave spectrum, which hosts wireless service. But that would slow the introduction of new wireless capability and reduce U.S. revenue earned from these auctions at a time when we need it.

It’s time for those on the left to reconsider what we are trying to accomplish in Internet policy. Instead of over-regulating the companies competing and innovating to deliver high-speed connections, we should focus on incentives to make sure every neighborhood has some level of access, that our schools, hospitals and local governments improve their service and productivity online, and that online privacy is respected.

It was the Clinton administration, not tea-party ideologues, that first championed the idea of a privately funded Internet serving a public purpose. Fantasies about regulation slow the progress we’ve made following that path.

Ev Ehrlich, based in Washington, D.C., is a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, president of ESC Company and a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.

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