U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, discussed the committee’s tech agenda for the 115th Congress during a speech at the State of the Net internet policy conference.
Sen. Thune’s prepared remarks are below:
“It’s hard to believe, but the Internet as we know it is already in its third decade. While it is no longer novel, this essential technology continues to transform the world around us, often in unexpected ways.
“For instance, back in the 1990s when folks were getting acquainted with America Online and the World Wide Web, how many people envisioned the Internet being built into farm combines and tractors? Today, however, wireless connectivity in precision farm equipment is making agriculture more and more efficient.
“By the way, for you non-farmers in the room, I think many of you would be surprised to see how high-tech the cabin of a modern tractor is. They often resemble the cockpit of an airliner, with numerous screens, computers, and controls. And semi-autonomous driving technology has been common for a decade.
“We are also seeing some really remarkable developments in health care, which is now more accessible than ever before due to telemedicine and remote monitoring services powered by the Internet.
“These are huge changes that are making our world better and more prosperous, and they’re only made possible because of advancements in how data is shared and transmitted online. And the evidence is literally all around us.
“By now, we are used to having at least a couple of online devices near us at all times – from computers, to phones, and even our TVs. Increasingly, however, we are seeing common, everyday objects being connected online – a literal ‘Internet of Things’ that will soon be ubiquitous. Things like thermostats and refrigerators, along with those precision ag machines and health sensors I mentioned earlier. These IoT devices unobtrusively gather data and communicate with users, and with other devices, to solve a variety of consumer needs.
“The Internet of Things will also bring significant economic benefits and drive growth in every sector of our economy. There are currently about 16 billion Internet-connected devices worldwide, and by 2020 some believe that number will be between 50 and 200 billion devices. According to McKinsey, this explosion of growth has the potential to create an economic impact of up to $6.2 trillion annually by 2025. And, as much as consumers will see IoT devices proliferate, most of the real benefit and growth from this trend will be seen in industrial, commercial, and civic applications.
“IoT is just one example of how communications and information technologies like the Internet have become a fundamental part of our economy. There isn’t a job creator in America who doesn’t have their own story to tell about how and when they realized the Internet had become a critical part of their business. But while the connected digital economy is creating massive economic and societal opportunities, our nation’s laws are not keeping pace with the rapidly evolving digital landscape.
“Over the last several years, Netflix and Amazon have completely disrupted the video world. The iPhone just celebrated its tenth anniversary since redefining personal computing and connectivity. Yet most of the government policies dealing with video, wireless, and Internet platforms were written for a world where none of these things even existed.
“It is a testament to the ingenuity of American businesses and entrepreneurs that they have been able to adapt and succeed with laws that are increasingly out-of-date. While I don’t doubt that they can and will continue to work around the growing shortcomings of our nation’s laws, American companies and consumers deserve better from our government.
“First, we need to modernize our communications laws to facilitate the growth of the Internet itself. And second, we need to update government policies to better reflect the innovations made possible by the Internet and other digital technologies. As chairman of the Senate committee most focused on helping businesses find opportunities for growing worker rolls and paychecks, the vast majority of our top agenda items fit into one of those two buckets.
“The Internet is the platform for learning, engaging, and creating in the digital world. The more robust and secure our networks are, the more prosperous our country will be. That means we need to both invest in America’s digital future and make sure the laws governing the Internet are well-crafted.
“One way government can help investment in our digital infrastructure is by finding ways to make it cheaper and easier to build mobile and fixed broadband networks. At the Commerce Committee, I introduced legislation called the MOBILE NOW Act to ensure that huge swaths of wireless spectrum are made available for commercial use by the year 2020. By then, we expect to see the next generation of ultra-high speed mobile services known as ‘5G,’ which will need more spectrum than is available today. MOBILE NOW would also cut through much of the bureaucratic red tape that makes it difficult to build wireless infrastructure on federal property. And the bill would facilitate inclusion of broadband-ready conduit in federally-supported highway projects, reducing the time and cost of building out Internet service.
“I expect the Commerce Committee to pass MOBILE NOW later this week, but this legislation is just the start of what Congress can do to promote network buildout. Even after Senate passage, I intend for the Commerce Committee to continue developing legislative proposals to spur broadband deployment, to make more spectrum available for the public, and to improve connectivity throughout rural America. And with Congress possibly working on broader infrastructure legislation this year, these kinds of ideas should be part of the discussion.
“Good Internet infrastructure policies and investments matter very little, however, if government bureaucrats have the ability to overregulate the digital world. And when it comes to regulating the Internet, one need look no further than the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In a world that was turning away from legacy telecom services and instead toward dynamic Internet applications, the FCC found its role in the world gradually diminishing. This is an inevitable and good byproduct of a more competitive world brought about by technological innovation and successful, light-touch polices.
“Yet over the last several years the FCC pursued an aggressively activist and partisan agenda that put government edicts ahead of real consumer desires in setting a course for the Internet. Speaking about new economic opportunities on the Internet, the last FCC chairman declared that – and I quote – ‘government is where we will work this out.’ I don’t know about you, but I think the marketplace should be the center of the debate over how our digital networks will function, not the FCC. And I believe consumers and job creators should be the ones deciding about new technologies, not the government.
“For instance, some Internet providers are offering service plans that allow you to stream video, music, or other content for free. These innovative offers are a sign of dynamic and aggressive competition in the marketplace. Yet two weeks ago, the outgoing FCC issued a report raising, what they called, “serious concerns” that such practices ‘likely…harm consumers.’ They seem to think being able to do more online for less money is bad for consumers. Meanwhile, consumers themselves seem to strongly disagree, because these free data offerings are quite popular.
“One of the important takeaways from November’s historic election is that the American people are tired of government bureaucrats trying to micromanage their lives. One way for us to address this concern in the digital space is to both modernize how the FCC operates and to reform what the FCC is allowed to do. We need a modern regulator that focuses more on fixing fundamental problems in the marketplace and focuses less on dictating the direction of technological innovation and progress.
“The last time Congress passed meaningful laws affecting the FCC was in the mid-1990s when the Internet was just in its infancy. It is clearly time for FCC reform. We have had many conversations about improving the agency, and this year presents a real opportunity to turn those conversations into solutions. Given the broad interest in promoting continued growth of the Internet, I’m confident we can attract the bipartisan support needed to move legislation modernizing the FCC across the Senate floor.
“Another area where I would like to achieve bipartisan agreement is on legislation to protect the Open Internet. We need clear and reasonable rules for the digital road that Internet companies, broadband providers, and end users can easily understand. Complex and ambiguous regulations that shift with the political winds aren’t in anyone’s best interest. For people to get the maximum benefit possible from the Internet, they need certainty about what the rules are, and most importantly, what the rules will be in the coming years. And the only way to achieve this is for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation.
“I have worked with my colleagues over the last two years to find a legislative solution, and while we haven’t gotten there yet, I remain committed to the cause. Who knows, the reality of a Republican FCC may help inspire some of my Democrat colleagues to embrace the idea that a bipartisan, legislative solution is the best possible outcome.
“For those who have heard me speak about these issues since I became chairman of the Commerce Committee two years ago, hopefully some of this sounds familiar. The committee was incredibly productive last year, with 60 measures enacted into law. We also made real progress on Internet-focused legislation, including committee approval of MOBILE NOW and the first FCC reauthorization bill in a quarter century. We’ll build on that foundation this Congress.
“To reiterate, my goals for the current Congress include: enacting MOBILE NOW; moving additional legislation on broadband deployment and spectrum policy; including broadband in any larger infrastructure package; finding a long-term, legislative solution to protecting the open Internet; and working with my colleagues in the Senate and the House on overdue updates to modernize the FCC and our communications laws.
“In all of this, I want to take advantage of the good ideas of our committee members and the stakeholders represented here today. If anyone has watched the two confirmation hearings we’ve held so far this month – for Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation and Wilbur Ross to be Secretary of Commerce – you’ll no doubt appreciate that spectrum, the Internet of Things, cybersecurity, and broadband deployment, particularly in rural areas, were consistent themes from senators on both sides of the aisle. In other words, there will be no shortage of ideas to incorporate as we move forward on the goals I’ve outlined.
“It’s also important to underscore that – as this group knows well – there is not a bright line between Internet policy and the other key parts of our economy. The same is true for the Commerce Committee’s agenda.
“For example, self-driving vehicles will be one of our most significant areas of oversight in the new Congress. I use the term self-driving vehicle instead of autonomous vehicle because, as my colleague Sen. Gary Peters from Michigan recently explained, you still have to tell the vehicle where to take you. The term ‘autonomous’ makes it sound as if the vehicle doesn’t really need you anymore.
“Since 1946, more than 30,000 people have died every single year on the roadways of the United States. Over these 70 years, we’ve certainly saved lives by introducing seatbelts, air bags, and smarter designs. All of these important safety advancements, however, pale in comparison to the potential safety benefits of self-driving vehicles. It won’t come all at once, but self-driving technology has the potential to give road safety a record that competes with that of modern commercial airlines.
“Some have argued that self-driving cars, or at least certain functions, should be disconnected from the Internet to minimize the risk of malicious hacking. But there are some obvious benefits to cars that can communicate with each other or with the infrastructure – or can simply download the latest information about traffic conditions or updates to the vehicle’s operating software. So, conversations about the speed and security of our Internet connections will be intertwined with discussions about the safety of our roadways.
“At the Commerce Committee, we don’t guide new technologies; instead, technology guides us to the policies that are needed. At the end of the day, it will be American innovators and entrepreneurs who will determine what the digital future holds, not us. The best that government can do is try to facilitate their success while making sure we are not accidentally standing in their way.
“If youth is all about endless possibility, then adulthood is all about manifesting that potential into reality. As the Internet matures in its twenties, I am excited to watch how it and other emerging technologies will continue to change our world in the coming years. And as a leader in the Congress, I am eager to do my small part in ensuring that all Americans benefit from these amazing advances.”