In recent years, Latinos have benefited immensely from new communications technologies. Thanks to the widespread availability of high-speed Internet connections, Latinos of all ages and income levels can tap into the transformative potential of broadband and use the universe of tools it enables to start a business, improve their education, monitor their health, or just stay in better touch with family and friends. Together, such a broad array of uses, which ranges from the mundane to the life-saving, has provided our community with a unique platform for advancement and engagement. Indeed, the economic and social clout of our rapidly growing demographic is amplified immeasurably by these tools. For these reasons, Latinos should be greatly concerned by any attempt to slow or halt these critical advances. A proceeding in Washington that implicates the future of the Internet should thus be of great interest.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently considering rules to protect the “open Internet.” The open Internet is the Internet we currently enjoy – a place where we can visit whatever website we want and send whatever information we wish without having to worry about it being blocked or degraded. This is a worthy goal, one that all Latinos should embrace. But how we achieve that goal matters as much, if not more than, the goal itself, because if we pick the wrong path, we might end up in a very bad place.
President Obama recently offered his preferred path forward. He wants the FCC to radically alter how it regulates broadband service providers by treating them as public utilities. In other words, the President equates broadband service to basic telephone and electric service. If the FCC agrees, this would be a dramatic shift in how it has long approached broadband. Indeed, in response to legislation adopted by a bipartisan Congress in the late 1990s, the FCC developed rules to ensure that the blossoming broadband market was exempt from the rigid rules that were long applied to telephone companies. In response, broadband service providers have invested over a trillion dollars in their networks. Switching course now would have the opposite effect – service providers would pull back investments. This is already happening. AT&T recently announced that it was hitting the pause button on a major upgrade of its broadband network until it has more certainty about the regulatory framework going forward.
Rules that hurt investment in broadband networks will negatively impact the ability for our communities to continue benefiting from the Internet. Less investment will slow the deployment of better, faster, and more reliable networks. Our communities would have fewer opportunities to leverage these connections. Prices might rise to offset declines in investment or to comply with the mountain of new regulations that would be imposed on them. With higher rates of unemployment and lower average incomes than other demographic groups, price increases will strain many Latino budgets. Jobs will also be lost, depriving Latinos of a range of opportunities to work in and around the broadband sector. And the millions of Latinos who remain offline will likely stay offline as prices go up and access opportunities go down.
All of this paints a very bleak picture of the future. Fortunately, these outcomes are not preordained. The FCC has another route available to it on the path to protecting the open Internet. As an independent agency, it does not have to follow the President’s advice. Instead, it could formalize strong rules that don’t require it to treat broadband providers as public utilities. This can be done rather easily according to authority it already possesses in federal law. This authority stems from section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the same piece of legislation that called on the FCC to keep the Internet unfettered by unnecessary regulation. This section empowers the FCC to adopt a range of open Internet rules, rules that will help preserve the user experience that we’ve all come to rely on.
The FCC should be urged to exercise its independence and do what’s best for the country. Anything less would amount to a gamble on our Internet future, and that’s a bet we can’t afford to even think about losing.
Jose Marquez serves as the National President and CEO of Latinos in Informations Sciences and Technology Association (LISTA).