Talk of Telecom Rewrite Could Mean Deja Vu All Over Again

Regulation Watch

Talk of Telecom Rewrite Could Mean Deja Vu All Over Again

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor  |  January 16, 2014

On Dec. 2, the U.S. House of Representatives, under the leadership of House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), the chairman of the subcommittee on Communications and Technology, announced their intent to begin re-writing the Communications Act.

They envision a multi-year effort that will start this year with a series of hearings and white papers. 

I thought I might weigh in on the subject given personal experiences that those looking at the prospects of an overhaul may wish to consider. History here is important.

In 1975, following the U.S. Department of Justice’s fourth anti-trust case against the old AT&T (News - Alert), under the leadership of then Chairman John deButts, AT&T fired back. At the company’s behest, legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress under the title, The Consumer Communications Reform Act of 1975, (aka, The Bell Bill). While it never passed, it set off a debate that continues to this day, albeit with some minor modification reflective of the times in which we live. 

The problem with the Bell Bill was that it had absolutely nothing to do with consumers or reform. Indeed, it was an attempt at legislative affirmation of a notion first put forth by deButts in September 1973, in a speech entitled “An Unusual Obligation” given to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, that sought to codify the AT&T monopoly. It embodied what deButts had promised to NARUC – that the time had come to, “Take to the public the case for the common carrier principle and thereby implication to oppose competition, espouse monopoly.”

As a young lobbyist, I was part (a very small one) of the effort that helped kill the Bell Bill. However, the genie was out of the bottle. The late Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin, (D-CA (News - Alert)), and a former broadcaster, was stirred by the prospects of re-writing the Communications Act to be competition friendly and proposed what became known as an “attic to basement” re-write. You might wish to go back and read what was in the Van Deerlin legislation and sister bills in the Senate. They were radical for the time, including things like AT&T being forced to divest Western Electric and Bell Labs (News - Alert) with equally disruptive changes proposed for the cable and broadcasting industries. 

To those of us who favored competition over regulation, the Van Deerlin efforts were pure genius. The goal was much the same as that articulated recently by new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in his first public speech about putting competition at the heart of a regulatory regime. The reason is because of its validity as the best means to promote innovation and consumer choice and access.  

The FCC (News - Alert) is an instrument of Congress. It takes its guidance in promulgating rules from Congressional intent and oversight. What this means in the context of the desperate need to re-write the Act is that Congress needs to give Wheeler and his fellow commissioners a clear indication of its intent.

Based on recent industry reports about the persistence of an impressive digital divide in this country that holds us back from competing with the rest of the world, and the fact that our average broadband speeds are fair at best compared to other developed countries, the lack of a national program with clear articulation of roles and responsibilities, is in a word, crazy. Any re-write, to my mind, should look at doing several things:

1) With the looming death of the public switched telephone network as we have known it, universal access to broadband (with set speeds and feeds by certain dates) is a must have. 2) The Commission could use additional instruction from the Congress on how spectrum allocations should be made, including how long licenses last, ownership restrictions, etc., so that innovation and competition are encouraged and the role of such spectrum in meeting national broadband access needs are delineated.

3) Congress has a role in setting policies, or at least providing guidance, on the issues of net neutrality, regulation of the Internet (regarding privacy, freedom of speech, and possible taxation) and those intentions need to be spelled out. 

4) Competition, competition, competition as the guiding principle needs to permeate whatever is done, and should be the place where the preamble to a re-write begins and ends.

Peter Bernstein is a senior editor for TMCnet, the online entity of INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine’s parent company, Technology Marketing Corp.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi