This month, members of the powerful U.S. House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, including Bay Area Rep. Anna Eshoo, the committee's ranking members, and California's Rep. Henry Waxman, will oversee a hearing on the "Future of the Copper Network in the Age of the Internet."
The subcommittee will likely look at how new technologies like wireless 4th Generation Long-Term Evolution (4G LTE) and fiber optic technologies are quickly making the old copper telephone networks, relied on for voice and early DSL Internet service, obsolete.
Looming over that discussion will be the idea of the multilayered urban/rural, rich/poor "digital divide," a term developed two decades ago regarding the gap between Internet "haves" and "have-nots." And the problem has become more significant as the Internet has become the way we are educated, find jobs, develop skills, and get involved in our communities.
In those intervening two decades, some things have changed and some have not, but on balance, the problem remains. Which prompts the question -- what will we do to address it?
What hasn't changed is that the divide persists. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, people with fewer years of education, lower incomes and older people, continue to use high-speed Internet at lesser rates than the rest of the population. But what's new is that the divide is slightly less pronounced than in the past, thanks largely due to wireless smartphones and tablets.
And we have learned that the major obstacle for most people without Internet access is not price, but relevance. If we want more people to adopt the Internet -- and avoid creating a class of folks who are left on the other side of the divide -- we need to make the Internet's relevance clear.
Unfortunately, this focus seems to be lost in the Internet policy debate now underway in Washington.
Instead, Washington is discussing new regulatory proposals, most of which won't do anything to solve the problem of the digital divide. In fact, they would make matters worse.
First is the idea of "net neutrality," which would mandate that everything on the Internet travel at the same speed -- whether it's a reading from your heart monitor or a video of a cat playing the xylophone. But this would penalize such applications as remote learning or telemedicine services that could revolutionize the way we live. That's because those services need an uninterrupted connection to work, and in a world with "neutrality," companies that offer these services wouldn't be allowed to purchase this dedicated Internet connection or services like it.
Second is the proposal to rig auctions for wireless spectrum -- the real estate on which the wireless Internet is built -- to favor one big company over another, all in the name of "injecting competition."
Regulatory over-enthusiasts would fix these auctions to keep that spectrum out of the hands of the companies that need it the most to serve their customers -- the same customers the regulations are supposed to protect. And since these companies may well be the highest bidders, this proposal would reduce federal revenues at a time when food stamps are on the block.
Third is a proposal called "common carriage" that would make a company that builds Internet cables and other infrastructure share that infrastructure with their competitors. But who would ever invest if they had to share what they invested in? In fact, we had such a policy once -- remember the decades of innovation in the black rotary phone monopoly Bell era? Me neither. Bringing this idea back would freeze the Internet where it is today, just like the phone system was, and will cost us dearly in innovation, investment and the 21st century jobs needed to power our economy. Who would ever want to go back?
Congress needs to rethink what it wants from Internet policy. Let's use the power of broadband to jump-start our schools and health system and to make our economy more cost-efficient.
Let's work with the broadband companies to make sure those last 15 to 20 percent of Americans on the wrong side of the "digital divide" adopt the Internet to improve their lives. Let's look forward, not back. That's the right agenda to pursue.
Ev Ehrlich is a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, president of ESC Co. and a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.