Editorial: The Task at Hand

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski last week announced he is creating a new task force to oversee the transition from circuit-switched copper networks made for phone calls to IP networks that will carry information of all kinds into the digital age.

The task force will bring together staffers from various FCC bureaus, sort of like an in-house version of the call from outside the bureau to get rid of the regulatory silos that different media are now put in, even though different media are increasingly cross-pollinating. Cable operators are broadband providers are phone companies, and broadcasters are website operators are mobile content providers. You get the idea, and so apparently does the FCC.

“Technological transitions don’t change the basic mission of the FCC,” the chairman said on Dec. 11. “But technology changes can drive changes in markets and competition, and many of the commission’s existing rules draw technologybased distinctions. So the ongoing changes in our nation’s communications networks require a hard look at many rules that were written for a different technological and market landscape.”

Amen to that.

The new task force will have a “particular focus on voice services,” according to the commission. Part of the impetus appears to have been Superstorm Sandy and calls from Congress for more FCC oversight of communications networks’ emergency readiness; the calls for getting rid of some copper wire-era regs from phone companies switching to IP were likely another part of it. But another, similar task force is needed, this one with a “particular focus” on video services.

The FCC has sought comment on how it should define Multichannel Video Programming Distributor (MVPD) in the new world of TV Everywhere— a question that will need answering sooner rather than later.

The courts will ultimately weigh in on whether over-the-top video in markets with TV station signals can be delivered as part of an online service without having to negotiate payments with broadcasters, and the Sky Angel complaint over whether an IP-delivered service warrants program-access rights will eventually have to be resolved. But a piecemeal approach is a stopgap measure and does not supply the vaunted regulatory certainty required so that online video providers can make plans for an online video future the FCC itself says is coming—one which it is actively promoting.

So we think the FCC should create a similar task force, a brain trust of over-the-top guns from various bureaus who can do some of the heavy mental lifting on the issue.

Politically, redefining MVPD to include online providers brings with it a host of challenges, like avoiding content regulation of the Internet, which is just the sort of thing the U.S. was battling last week at the WCIT TV conference in Dubai. But not defining MVPD also raises issues. For instance, would it prompt traditional MVPDs to move to over-the-top entirely to avoid existing access and carriage obligations?

The FCC has asked whether it needs to open a separate proceeding on the issue. While that’s a recipe for kicking the can a little further down the street, it also may be necessary, because to make that call in the context of the Sky Angel complaint invites charges of too big a change after too little vetting.

In an exclusive interview with B&C this week, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel had it about right. “The commission should not favor one technology or business plan over another,” she said. “It should be up to consumers to decide which services they want! And if our rules are barriers to entry or distorting the evolution of video markets, we need to take steps to address that.”

But it won’t be easy, thanks to all those regulatory silos that are increasingly cramped and irrelevant. “This agency is going to continue to struggle to apply the laws of the present to the way we are going to watch in the future,” Rosenworcel said. “We would benefit from having a broader proceeding and getting more industry input.”

So would industries looking to plan their futures, and sooner rather than later. The political wisdom is to avoid a tough call for as long as possible, but technology doesn’t play politics or cool its heels in the outer office while government officials try to run out the clock.