Unfortunately for Congress, the FCC, and the States, it’s not about broadband adoption
This is what I should have heard in last Wednesday’s House sub-committee hearing on the evolution of wired technology:
“The Congress, through legislation and agency rule, embarks on expanding the market for digital information by ensuring the existence of a high-performance digital network that encourages consumers to adopt broadband services such that consumers may take advantage of the increased offerings of information providers.”
First of all, don’t worry. I have no intention of running for Congress. Besides, given the directness and practicality of the above preamble, I wouldn’t survive a term because … well … I’m too direct and practical. Given the recent shutdown, directness and practicality shouldn’t be expected from the Congress, but when it comes to broadband adoption and policy, last Wednesday’s panel blew an opportunity to put broadband adoption on the front burner.
Now before my libertarian friends blow a gasket, I’m not promoting an interventionist stance by the Federal Communications Commission, nowhere near what witnesses testifying before the panel appear to be alluding to. For example, take the issue of internet protocol trials. AT&T would like two of its wire centers, the places where our hard lines enter and are interconnected so that we can speak to each other, subjected to FCC-supervised internet protocol tests. AT&T would like to show the consumer protection and public safety types that the IP networks responsible for carrying voice and data are as resilient as the old copper-based legacy telephone networks that were designed primarily for voice calls.
On the state level, my old friends at the National Association of Regulatory and Utility Commissioners (NARUC) would like the States to continue involvement with consumer protection and interconnection issues. The effects of Superstorm Sandy, specifically call outages, are still on the minds of NARUC members, so much so that NARUC along with the good people of Public Knowledge have used the word “values” to sum up their interpretations of what consumers expect from the services that they buy. To sum up NARUC and Public Knowledge, their vision of a good telecommunications society is where the communications system works, no matter the technology, and Title II regulations are the best tools to make sure these values are met.
I don’t see the need for IP transition trials. As witnesses for AT&T and the Vermont Public Service Board pointed out before the House sub-committee, consumers have been moving to internet protocol services since the early 2000s. Approximately 30 million households are experiencing the transmittal of voice and data via internet protocol. If we need tests, assessments, or surveys to determine how well IP is performing, 30 million households provide a pretty juicy sample.
I also disagree with the need for further state involvement particularly on broadband interconnection issues. My pre-Grecian Hair Formula days were spent at the Florida Public Service Commission where approvals for new services could run from 30 days to six months. State public utility commissions have been spoiled by the intervention framework set out in Section 251 of the Communications Act, and, according to NARUC’s testimony at Wednesday’s hearing, states would like to see that continue with broadband providers. Why waste time with IP trials when all the FCC should do is declare broadband a telecommunications service? After putting broadband in the Title II box, the FCC can then invite the States to the regulatory feast. The States would love this, according to NARUC.
Who shouldn’t like it? Minority-owned edge service and over-the-top providers along with their underwriters and investors. Imagine the Enterprise hurling toward Earth on some emergency. Instead of smoothly slowing down from warp speed, she abruptly hits a worm hole with a big asteroid smack in front of her. That’s what content, backbone, or edge providers may find their traffic subjected to as the deployment of innovative last-mile services are slowed down by the Title II requirements Public Knowledge and NARUC continue to press for.
There is a bigger fault in NARUC and Public Knowledge’s arguments. Their arguments ignore the economic realities of the new communications network. This network serves an information market first and foremost. Long-haul, backbone, and last-mile providers have invested billions to move data quickly and efficiently. Ever since the internet was born, its stakeholders have interconnected at network access points knowing that a functioning and efficient network would incentivize users to adopt it, thus increasing the network’s value. A seamless internet is what consumers want and to ensure that happens, the broadband last mile should look pretty much like a network of networks.