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Editorial: Time for Action

House Republican leaders last week announced what was essentially the launch of a conversation about trying to change outdated telecom laws, an effort that even its most ardent backers say will take years.

We join with the cable and broadcast and phone trade associations praising the initiative. Nobody argues that the 1996 Communications Act is getting long in the tooth.

Former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell summed up the aging law last week in support of the rewrite effort. “The 1996 Act was based on the 1934 Act. It didn’t modify the foundation of the Act, it was built on top of it. And the 1934 Act was actually built on the Railroad Act of 1888, which had its foundation on the regulation of canals back in the 17th century.”

But we also don’t think the broadcast or cable industries can wait as long as the conversation will likely take. And we’re sure consumers and technology aren’t going to sit back and wait for Washington officials to agree on what the future will look like and how to facilitate it by either adding or subtracting regulation in the proper proportion.

Voice communications is transitioning to Internet protocol delivery at a rapid pace, whether or not the FCC chooses to keep up with it.

And as we’ve said here before, broadcasters can’t afford to live under a lastcentury regulatory regime if they are expected to be competitive with this century’s new distribution platforms. The communications landscape could be reconfigured more than once in the next year—while the hearings and white papers the GOP plans call for are carried out ahead of a planned 2015 rewrite.

Only four months ago, the House voted to repeal an FCC report to Congress on the telegraph. Yes, new FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has celebrated the transformative nature of the dot-and-dash medium, but he was talking about the administration of Lincoln, not Obama.

And there is no guarantee that such a rewrite will be able to run the gauntlet of House and Senate successfully. Perhaps by 2015 Republicans and Democrats will have set aside the political posturing and infighting for the sake of the public good, which will mean compromise and negotiation. But we’re not betting the farm, or the industry’s future, on that prospect. And there are legitimate philosophical differences about the role of the FCC and communications regs.

In the meantime, there are things the FCC can and should do. Start counting the Internet as a competitor in the video marketplace; take action on media ownership rule reviews; produce an incentive auction that does not marginalize the broadcasters who remain and decide how it is going to treat over-thetop video providers.

One important over-the-top call is up to the courts. The Supreme Court does what it wants to, and does not have to explain why. But it needs to grant cert in the Aereo challenge and provide some legal certainty about whether copyright still has any teeth in a world where technology can circumvent the spirit of the law with the click of a button.