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Regulate but don’t block road to the future

There’s a lot to be said for the concept that government should do for the citizenry that which individuals cannot do for themselves.

And then get out of the way.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently as the federal government struggles to regulate the flight of drones and traffic on the Internet. Both seem reasonable activities for government but the way in which the feds are going about each is bound to hobble the march of technology and thus commerce.

Take the FAA’s approach to drones, potentially the next big thing in Nevada. First, we were treated to a politically charged race to win federal designation as a test area. The FAA finally recognized the wisdom of selecting the Silver State, with its vast open space, good weather and strong drone history.

Then the feds came up with a go-slow approach to regulating that assures for the next two years little meaningful can happen. Those invested in the status quo are delighted.

Certainly we don’t want drones getting in the way of airplanes. That’s in nobody’s interest. And we don’t want a noisy drone waking us up at 2 a.m. Privacy concerns are legitimate. The White House memorandum requiring paperwork before police agencies can snoop via drone is welcome.

But those who have larger commercial dreams for drones – from Amazon to DHL to your local pizza shop — are seeing their first mover advantage erode. Products will never be delivered by drone if a human has to have the drone in sight at all times. The idea is to increase speed and cut costs. The FAA rules make that impossible today and send innovators the message they least want to hear — wait.

What’s the advantage of being a visionary in this field, like Amazon with its concept of rapid product delivery, if you’re told to stand still while others catch up?

This is no way to send the signal that we as a nation value STEM research and want to reward innovation.

The second verse sounds much like the first.

Net neutrality sounds fine until you get into the detail. Certainly we don’t want to allow a system in which the controllers of the information superhighway can stifle competition by blocking access. It is, conceptually, a public thoroughfare. The feds are on solid ground to enforce a uniform minimal level of service. But that’s where the feds should stop regulating and get out of the way.

Any analogy that starts with the U.S. Postal Service is automatically suspect but bear with me, please. For 49 cents, anyone can mail a letter with a reasonable expectation it will get there within a few days, depending on distance, weather and maybe the temperament of the neighborhood canine. For a little more, you can get proof of receipt or second-day delivery. For a lot more, you can get next day delivery.

The point is there is a minimal level of service and then there are upgrades. It’s a methodology that works in many facets of life — from getting brake pads to ordering a burger.

Applied to the Internet, it would allow for users who want faster streaming content to pay extra for that service (and for the right to use more of the collective bandwidth of the system). And it’s that ability to charge for enhancements that drives innovation in that space.

If the feds say all Internet service must be equal, it would be like saying we all can eat only vanilla ice cream. It’s a deal-breaker for those of us who want chocolate or strawberry or some new flavor that has yet to be invented.

Government needs to assure the equitable access to the infrastructure — assuring public safety and adherence to contemporary definitions of the common good – then it needs to get out of the way. No unreasonable delays that harm innovators and entrepreneurs. No more; no less.

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