Business VoIP Featured Article

Expert: VoIP to Gain Greater Appreciation under Obama-Appointed FCC Chair

November 18, 2008

By Michael Dinan, Business VoIP Editor

Under President-elect Barack Obama’s administration, the VoIP market stands to gain a greater appreciation from the federal agency that regulates communications in the United States, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who’s worked in telecommunications, media and technology for more than 25 years told virtual-pbx today.

According to Andrew D. Lipman of Bingham McCutchen LLP, VoIP also stands to get better carrier interconnection rights and recognition among policy-makers that the telecommunications world is evolving toward Internet telephony.
Nearly lost among headlines about a troop withdrawal from Iraq and a plan to stabilize the U.S. economy has been Obama’s IT policies, including those in telecom. Following an election in which Obama – as TMC President Rich Tehrani points out in an interview here – used technology in ways that politicians never have, rumors abound about whom the Illinois Democrat will name as the nation’s first chief technology officer and new Federal Communications Commission chairman.
As virtual-pbx has reported how telecommunications companies – especially larger ones that enjoyed wide deregulation under President George W. Bush – are trying to figure out how they’ll fare during Obama’s presidency.
Today, virtual-pbx had a chance to put some questions directly to Lipman, an expert in the field who practices in virtually every aspect of communications law and related fields, including regulatory, transactional, litigation, legislative and land use.
We talked about why Lipman believes a hitherto-unnamed dark horse will emerge as Obama’s choice for the next FCC chairman, and how the president-elect’s much-professed environmental concern will affect the telecom space.
Our exchange follows.
virtual-pbx: Clearly, as the presentation notes, larger operators are bracing for some changes as President-elect Obama targets issues such as the universal service fund, bandwidth capping and what’s been called “corporate duopoly.” What, if any, advantages can smaller operators and consumer groups expect under Obama that they may not have seen during the Bush administration? Is there a clear winner-loser line among operators with the election of Obama?
Andrew D. Lipman (pictured left): There are unlikely to be clear winners or losers. Rather, there should be subtle, but still important shifts in direction and policy, favoring certain groups and industries, such as smaller, competitive carriers. Under Obama, the FCC and Justice Department should be more enforcement-oriented and concerned with curbing monopoly power and pricing. Further, an Obama administration will likely scrutinize more closely large industry mergers and joint ventures. Further, an Obama administration will likely be more focused on intra-modal competition – for example, Bells-CLECs-VoIP providers – while the Bush administration was more focused on inter-modal competition – for example, Bells-Cable.
virtual-pbx: Obama has put a major emphasis on broadband deployment through wireless technologies, and has spoken of Internet access in schools and healthcare facilities. He will take office as the unemployment rate rises to levels not seen in a quarter-century. What has Obama said about creating jobs through technology infrastructure initiatives?
AL: Obama directly sees infrastructure initiatives as directly and indirectly creating jobs – good, clean, value-added jobs. He looks at infrastructure much like a century ago: Policymakers looked at railroads as instrumentalities to further commerce, driving down prices and increasing efficiency. In particular, he believes that broadband infrastructure will have a multiplier effect on the economy. Namely, that every dollar spent will create multiples of that investment in related jobs and investment. So, in Obama’s mind, the two factors are inter-related.
virtual-pbx: Many are speculating that an Obama appointee-led FCC likely will give more power to Internet companies such as Google, rather than telecom companies, such as the cable giants. The Martin and Powell FCC’s took a largely hands-off, deregulatory approach. Why does Bingham feel that a dark horse candidate is likely to emerge as an FCC chairman frontrunner? What sorts of qualities is this individual likely to possess?
AL: More than any other administration, the Obama transition team is chock full of people with Internet and competitive telecom backgrounds. Many of them would be eminently qualified to serve as FCC chairman. But, over the past three or four decades, more often than not, the president-elect selects as FCC chairman a name that has not previously been mentioned or vetted in the press.
It was a long campaign and Obama has many people to thank. Further, he is committed to giving key jobs to people of color and other under-represented groups. Also, key senators and House members have often recommended their senior staff for chairmen of independent regulatory commissions. Given the increased prominence of he FCC, there may be keen interest in non-traditional areas for a new FCC chair. However, it could just as easily be one of the several names frequently discussed. Any such Chair likely will be tech-savvy, committed to universal broadband deployment, a team player, a strong manager and acceptable to key legislators.
virtual-pbx: One central part of Obama’s campaign that didn’t come up in Bingham’s report is his professed commitment to the environment – something he stressed again today. How is the president-elect’s stress on renewable energy and conservation expected to play out in the telecom sector?
AL: Excellent question. I think that the areas are very connected. Unlike in past FCC administrations, one question that could routinely be addressed in key FCC decisions is how does any outcome impact the environment. This could include not only emission reduction and energy savings in the communications sector, but also benefits from the adoption of communications technologies to influence and transform the way people converse, work and invest. The FCC likely will look for creative and innovative means to use technology to deliver energy efficiency.
virtual-pbx: We saw a different approach to technology from Obama’s campaign during the election season, and now many of us are waiting to see how his appointment of the first-ever U.S. chief technical officer to the cabinet will develop. So far, it sounds like the CTO’s role mainly will lie within government. From the perspective of businesses working in telecommunications, how powerful will this person be?
AL: My best guess is that the CTO’s role will expand from that of facilitating government IT into a more external facing and policy impacting-advocating role. One policy area for such a person is addressing the issues raised in using communications, information and technology to reduce carbon emissions and enhance energy savings. The CTO could be an advocate for these technical issues before independent regulatory agencies, such as the FCC, Congress and other domestic-foreign entities.
virtual-pbx: Much has been made of the FCC’s rule against Comcast in the BitTorrent case and the federal agency’s call for transparency. Does Bingham expect the FCC’s decision to be overturned in the courts?
AL: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. Circuit, where the appeal lies, has been skeptical historically on FCC decision-making process and procedures, particularly as in the instant case, where the FCC rests its decision on its ancillary powers under Title 1 of the Act. It is too early to say, before briefing and oral argument, whether the court will reverse the FCC. However, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that the Court could reverse or remand back to the agency given the above factors.
virtual-pbx: Internet telephony got a passing mention in Bingham’s report. Just what kinds of changes will VoIP providers or equipment makers notice under an Obama administration?
AL: First, greater FCC appreciation of VoIP. Second, better carrier interconnection rights. Third, recognition among policy-makers that the telecom world is evolving to VoIP. And finally, fostering of VoIP technology ubiquitously to rural and remote areas and to low-income users.

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Michael Dinan is a contributing editor for virtual-pbx, covering news in the IP communications, call center and customer relationship management industries. To read more of Michael’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan



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