The Internet is a powerful economic and social tool. It levels the playing field, helping people from all socioeconomic backgrounds gain access to important educational, economic, healthcare, civic engagement and civil rights opportunities.
As the president and CEO of the Charleston Trident Urban League, I have seen the direct impact that broadband access has had with the constituency we serve. It has empowered diverse communities across the state by putting a world of information at their fingertips.
Many of these benefits are due to private investment in broadband services. Broadband companies have poured almost one billion dollars into South Carolina's networks over recent years, resulting in faster network speeds across the state. Today, over 97 percent of South Carolina's population has access to wired or wireless networks.
In addition to allowing minorities access vital information on the Internet, this investment has helped create thousands of vital jobs in South Carolina. Broadband has also helped small businesses succeed as they grow more reliant on online sales. A 2013 study by Connect South Carolina found that businesses in the state earn about $17 billion annually online. Enabling even more broadband investment in our state will only increase these economic, social, and education opportunities for all South Carolinians.
We have seen great advancements in the availability of Internet access thanks to the regulatory framework put in place by the Clinton administration. The current light-touch approach has helped ramp up innovation and job creation, benefitting communities in South Carolina and around the country. We now need to continue to boost broadband adoption in these communities by improving digital literacy skills, so that all Americans have the know-how and will to use modern technology tools in their everyday lives.
In the effort to expand broadband connectivity, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has played a central role. Yet there are serious concerns that the Commission may now undermine the progress it has helped nurture by imposing a heavy-handed regulatory regime on broadband mirroring that of public utilities. Doing so would hinder the investment that has been so critical to South Carolina.
Under the Commission's current proposal, the Internet could be reclassified as a 19th century phone carrier. The Internet would effectively be regulated as a public utility thereby subjecting it to the same underinvestment that has plagued other utilities such as highways, water mains, and the electric grid. The American Society of Civil Engineers has calculated that our nation's infrastructure will suffer from an investment shortfall of $1.1 trillion by 2020, eventually costing each American family $28,000 in income. Adding broadband to the list of regulated public utilities would only exacerbate these costs.
Fortunately, we have a fellow South Carolinian, Mignon Clyburn, serving as an FCC Commissioner. Commissioner Clyburn has reinvigorated her office, earning praise for her efforts to include disempowered communities in FCC decision-making and expand broadband service to low-income and minority families. Public utility regulation of the Internet, and its associated harm to consumers, would be a step backward on the progress she has made thus far. To continue standing up for the citizens of South Carolina, Commissioner Clyburn must denounce the regulation of the Internet as an outdated phone carrier and support policies that widen, rather than shrink, investment in broadband networks.
Over the next couple of months, the commission will receive comments on its proposed new open Internet rules. The final rules of the road could have long-lasting consequences for broadband, and Commissioner Clyburn must avoid new regulations on a sector that has the potential to connect all Americans and to level the economic and social playing fields for all South Carolinians.
With someone representing us in Washington, we are hopeful that the commission will do the right thing for our state and our country.
Otha Meadows is president and CEO of the Charleston Trident Urban League.