Obama, Broadband, and the Future of the FCC

December 26th, 2008 by · 4 Comments

Abolish the FCC?  That's what Lawrence Lessig of Stanford wants Obama to do, abolish it and build a new regulatory body from scratch.  The article prompted the usual level of outrage (mostly in favor) across the blogosphere.  After all, calls for the abolition of the FCC happen just about every year, all you have to do is a Google search to see that much.  But the subject has extra meaning right now because of the coming Obama administration, which has publicly stated that access to broadband and internet policy will be a major focus area.

But how best to do that?  It seems like every new initiative we hear proposed is simply a dollar sign, a few digits, and a B.  You know, $740B, $40B, $80B - don't think too hard, just throw money at it.  But who do you throw money at to solve this problem?  Verizon and AT&T have plenty of money, so does Comcast, and let's not even talk about Google.  Hell, even Clearwire has billions.  It's the banks and automakers that need money not telecom and internet.  So why does the USA lag in broadband so embarrassingly?  Because the structure of the entire industry is an outdated monster and nobody has the cajones to change its diaper, that's why.

What I hope that Obama and his administration realize is this:  the job of a regulatory body like the FCC should be to create a framework for the industry that are understandable and make sense, AND THEN DO NOTHING.  Just step back and let us do the work, and tweak the system over time as technology evolves.  The FCC Chairman should be an almost invisible government position, we shouldn't even remember his name.  The rules and regulations for telecom and the internet right now are not a framework for growth, not even remotely.  No amount of money the government throws at the industry right now is going to change that.  No resolutions, or tax cuts, or tax credits, or subsidies, or whatever else congress likes to pass are going to have an effect.

While it is easy to lay the blame on the FCC chairmen as many do (sometimes me), perhaps the main problem has been that such responsibility fell on their shoulders in the first place.  One cannot give someone like Kevin Martin (or Michael Powell before him, or his predecessors) a job like the FCC Chairmanship and then turn one's back on the whole sector, and expect them to then dismantle their own job.  There has been little guidance from the rest of government to give the agency any purpose other than to dole out gifts and penalties to special interests, so that is what the FCC does.  Actually doing the job it is theoretically tasked with would reduce its ability do that.  How do you change such a system?

Maybe Lessig is right.  Maybe it would be easier to just put it all in the incinerator and start again.  The first step would be simple, and yet hard.  We have to find someone who knows the industry, has the stature to change it, and is willing to go to Washington in order to eliminate his own job.  Any takers?

I hereby nominate Lawrence Lessig.  I mean, if one wants something done right, one has to do it oneself.  The man wants a chainsaw, so hand him a chainsaw.

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Categories: Government Regulations

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4 Comments So Far


  • fluids only says:

    Lessig’s idea is radical and simple, as good ideas often are. But it’s important to remember where he’s coming from – the world of intellectual property – because his views on communications regulation are more or less a direct transposition of his views on intellectual property rights.

    He says as much in the article, by referring to fundamental the policy tension in the IPR world between innovation and competition: the extent to which creators of industrial property need to be granted a degree of exclusivity, of insulation from competition, in order to promote innovation. You grant a monopoly because otherwise the innovators wouldn’t have sufficient incentive to invest. Lessig, of course, is the poster-boy of the copyleft/Creative Commons agenda, which has big issues, to say the least, with this argument in the modern world – he believes that the balance is tilted way too far in favor of IPR holders, and this is now stifling creativity and a better world for all.

    The problem is that this policy tension is only one element – albeit a very significant one of communications policy. Yes, it is directly referable to the issuance of broadcasting and radiocommunications licences. Yes, it explains a lot about how telecoms have traditionally been regulated. But inasmuch as I’m a fellow-traveller with Lessig on a lot of this, the FCC’s role, and the policy considerations need to address, is wider than that.

    For one thing, it needs to apply its variant of the essential facilities doctrine, enabling competitive access to the Bell local loop. Where would the industry be without that? Dead. There might come a day where access issues have been solved by the market, when Comcast, Cox, Clearwire, Google et al have an array of choices for users and providers to connect up with other. And that day might one day come. But for every futurist breathlessly declaring the imminent end of the Bell monopoly. There’s a senior Verizon or ATT exec muttering, over my dead body. Competition regulation is still needed in the US, big time. It might be a mess – and would be my first pit stop for a regulatory overhaul – but we still need it.

    James Q Crowe had it right when he said that the telecom sector is an industry in transition from a utility model to a technology model. The trick is to separate the utility parts from the technology parts – then you can start to look at paring back the regulator’s functions.

  • Rob Powell says:

    But is the FCC as currently constructed capable of managing this transition? Can it separate the utility parts from the technology parts? I don’t think it can. It’s not that I want to obliterate the regulatory structure, I just think it needs to be redesigned from scratch rather than just add another band-aid to the pile.

    Fluids_only for FCC chairman? Just say the word! 🙂

  • fluids only says:

    No, the FCC is a huge mess. Unfortunately it also serves as the beacon for regulation worldwide. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve explained section 271 to international regulators. But funnily enough, on one of the main issues confronting regulators worldwide – regulating convergence – the US doesn’t seem to have all that much to say. Most international regulatory agencies had separate regulators for broadcasting and telecoms, and are now looking to integrate them, or at least amend their regulations to cope with things like IPTV. But the FCC, which has been a “convergent” regulator from the start, hasn’t really had too much to offer, which is historically unusual. The UK regulator Ofcom is now seeking to assert itself more as a kind of world’s best practice regulator, what with its recent overhaul, quasi-corporate structure and trendy offices. (I’m taking the piss a bit, but actually, credit is well due).

    In this age of terrorism it would be injudicious of me to say that the FCC needs a bomb put under it … but figuratively that’s exactly what they need. I mean, have you ever tried to access a document filed there? I’ve done more than my fair share of academic research, and I still end up kicking the computer most of the time I try to find things supposedly logged in their archives. That says something about the place. We need change we can believe in 🙂

  • Rob Powell says:

    Heh, so that’s another vote for the chainsaw then, all we need is the proper person or people to wield it?

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