FCC Creates Tech Transition Task Force

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has created a new agency-wide
group, the Technology Transitions Task Force, to brainstorm how best to
"drive a virtuous cycle of innovation and investment, promote competition
and protect consumers" as the communications migrates from special
purpose, circuit-switched copper to general purpose, packet-switched, fiber and
wireless based networks.

The task force will comprise the FCC's chief economist and
CTO, as well as representatives from the Wireline, Wireless, Media, Consumer
Affairs and Public Safety Bureaus, office of General Counsel and the Office of
Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis. It is headed by General Counsel Sean
Lev, who will serve as interim director, and Rebekah Goodheart, associate chief
of the Wireline Competition Bureau, who will be deputy director.

Among the issues it will focus on are coordinating IP
interconnection, business broadband competition and consumer protection, with a
focus on voice communications.

"Technological transitions don't change the basic mission of
the FCC. But technology changes can drive changes in markets and
competition," the chairman said. "[M]any of the
Commission's existing rules draw technology-based 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."

One issue much on the minds of major carriers -- like
AT&T -- is whether the FCC should continue to enforce duplicative,
copper-plant based universal service requirements on telecoms as they migrate
to IP and LTE delivery of voice and broadband service.

"Today's announcement by the FCC to appoint a Technology Task Force to modernize its rules for the transition of traditionally regulated services to applications that ride on an IP broadband infrastructure is welcome news," said AT&T SVP Bob Quinn. "As AT&T pointed out in our recent filing, that transition is well underway with more than 70% of consumers having already migrated away from POTS service. Addressing these issues in a comprehensive process that crosses the smoke-stacked bureau structure that is a remnant of an almost 8 decades old telecom law is critically important. The Task Force created today by the Commission seems like a logical step towards that comprehensive process."

The Broadband Coalition, which represents competitive carriers, called the task force a "good development and a comprehensive effort by the FCC." But coalition spokesman Chip Pickering added that it should not be a vehicle for deregulating the big carriers. "[N]ew technologies should not mean allowing companies with market power over last mile facilities the ability to abuse that power at the expense of American businesses and competitive innovations," he said. "We're encouraged that the FCC is putting the resources needed to examine the issues around the transition to next generation networks -- regardless of the technologies used.  In doing so, we sincerely hope that this task force will maintain its focus on the crucial task of updating the Commission's competition policies for the twenty first century.  In particular, any transition must be accompanied by interconnection policies to ensure that users continue to seamlessly communicate, regardless of their service provider."

Verizon saw it differently. "[We] urge the FCC to focus this task force's efforts on ensuring that outdated regulation from the legacy era is not used to hinder ongoing investment and innovation in these new networks," said the company in a statement.

The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners applauded the FCC's move, and included Pai by name in its shout-out.

"Wireless technologies seem to change daily, but the fundamental concept of universal service does not. Federal and State regulators must ensure that all Americans have access to affordable, reliable telecommunications service. I applaud the FCC for launching this Task Force and am heartened that the agency is examining the same issues we are," said NARUC President Philip Jones. "I appreciate the leadership of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, Commissioner Ajit Pai, and their colleagues for reaching out to NARUC and our members."

House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) also gave credit to Republican Commissioner Pai in a statement that fell short of praising the effort, suggesting more that it was an overdue recognition of a problem that was not yet fixed.

"We no longer live in an analog world where three networks and one phone company are responsible for all the voice, video, audio, and data that we consume and convey," he said. "To pretend otherwise is not only futile, but harms the very innovation we seek. As technological advances alter the way we communicate, so, too, should it challenge our notions of how this market operates and how it must be regulated."My hope is that the task force the Chairman has announced today will present the type of forum Commissioner Pai has called for since joining the agency-one that not only helps transition toward the networks of tomorrow, but also away from the outdated regulations of the past."

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.