CES: Panelists Ponder Telecom Rewrite

A panel of Washington players agreed Wednesday that updating communications regulations was necessary, but there was disagreement on how and why that should happen.

That came at a panel session on how relevant the Telecom Act of 1996 is in a soon-to-be all IP world. The House Energy & Commerce Committee launched a process in the last Congress to revamp the Act, and David Redl, counsel to the committee Republican leadership, said that chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) plans to hit the ground running in this Congress.

Google senior counsel Staci Pies said the company was not backing any particular framework, but that while Google did not argue for sticking with the current regulatory regime, Congress should look for new ways to insure regulatory obligations for access and universal service carry over to an all-IP world, essentially FCC chairman Tom Wheeler's "network compact," which she said should guide any rewrite effort.

Craig Silliman, Verizon executive VP for public policy, law & security, took aim at arguments that a rewrite wouldn't happen, including that the divided Congress was too dysfunctional, that a rewrite was not necessary because the broadband space has flourished and nothing is broken, and that regulators can adapt the old rules.

He said he thinks Congress can get something done, that the current net neutrality debate disproves the theory that regulators can just muddle through under the old rules, and that, in terms of nothing being broken, that was like looking at a football player dragging weights across a field and saying he had succeeded rather than recognizing he could have gone farther and faster without the weights.

Redl said he thought there was definitely hope for a bipartisan rewrite and pointed to the bipartisan nature of most of the communications legislation coming out of the committee.

Pies said one thing new regs should not do is try to fit over-the-top delivery into an old regulatory model. Redl agreed, and said that while there are some things in the current act that make sense—and that a lot of the economy is tied to the existing model—there are others that are completely "dead letter law" and need to go.

While Pies was looking to come with new regs to carry over the network compact guarantees to IP, like access and interconnection, Silliman argued for a more high-level approach to consumer and competition protections, arguing that the more specific the rules are the less shelf life they would have.

Christopher Yoo, professor of Law, Communication, and Computer & Information Science, at the University of Pennsylvania, said he agreed with both Pies and Silliman. He said Pies was right that the current regime had been successful, which he attributed to light-touch regulation, but also the regs were too tech-specific and thus outmoded. He said one key to new rules was preserving a world in which companies compete rather than look to regulators for help.

Pies put in a plug for making it easier for Google to deploy fiber, which she said was good for the economy. Silliman gave kudos to Google for its fiber strategy. He said that while Verizon had years of experience begging, borrowing and pleading with localities to allow them to build, many times facing such onerous buildout conditions they ultimately walked away from. Google, he said, had flipped that model on its head "brilliantly," instead saying they would build and asking who would make it easy for them.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.