Convergence is the hallmark of the modern communications marketplace. It may have made sense to view and regulate various communications platforms as distinct silos back in 1996, but today the realities of this industry are far different from what the technology and telecommunications sectors looked like eighteen years ago.
Google has begun rolling out fiber optic networks to select communities across the country. Facebook is exploring ways to deliver voice service over mobile devices. AT&T and Verizon both offer video services, and Comcast is one of the most popular content providers in the nation. The very definition of competition has changed, and it has less to do with the provider and more to do with the services being offered.
Broadband has enabled dramatic shifts in the communications sector, and the fine lines between Internet service providers and Edge players blur more and more each and every day. The dynamism of this sector has resulted from the very nature of broadband as an information service. Unencumbered by onerous regulatory structures that would have limited its scope, scale, and possibilities, broadband has flourished over the past ten years. Therefore, today’s landscape is highly competitive expressly because the very nature of broadband enables it.
As Congress seeks to define competition in an ever-changing communications landscape, it should focus first and foremost on the service being delivered to the end-user. Under the current regulatory regime, traditional ISPs are treated differently from edge providers. In addition to its online search and advertising tools, Google offers both voice services and broadband. It effectively operates as both ISP and telephone carrier in these instances. And yet, it is accorded different treatment because its first order of business is as the world’s largest Internet search engine.
The disparate treatment afforded to communications providers because of the labels they were accorded in the 1996 Telecommunications Act may undermine continued growth and investment within the broadband sector. Currently, companies are incentivized to build faster, more robust networks because there’s a possibility that they may hit on the next big thing and rise to the top of the market as the next great innovator.
If the possibilities for great things to come is artificially limited, or the cards seemed stacked against certain players merely because they face a particular regulatory treatment based on one of the many services they offer consumers, an on-going desire to invest in network maintenance and build out may fall to the wayside.
To consumers, it matters not what kind of company provides broadband service, so long as it’s affordable and reliable. Regulatory structures should be the same way. Greater emphasis should be placed on how a service is used rather than on who is providing that service.
In addition to making more equitable the treatment of various broadband service providers – whether we’re talking about cable, DSL, wireless, or fiber optic networks – defining competition based on the ultimate service being rendered makes the market more competitive. If service providers do not face certain advantages or disadvantages because of what their primary business is, or what their traditional classification may be, there will be a greater tendency to focus on providing better service at more affordable rates because there are more companies playing in the same space, and subject to the same rules, to compete with for consumer advantage.
Without doubt, competition policy should be technology neutral. And the critical inquiry about how and what kind of rules to apply to competitors in this space should start with one simple question – what is the benefit or harm to the consumer? A well thought out competition policy has the ability to provide significant consumer protections. If the focus is on the consumer experience, issues pertaining to rates of return, variety of service offerings, and cost of services take on a different light.
Likewise, companies that invest in critical broadband infrastructure should be treated favorably, because without that investment, consumers will lack the ability to access the high-speed, high-quality broadband that we, as a culture, have decided is so critical to the ways we live, work, and play. By the same token, companies that exhaust network capacity by engaging in large and frequent file transfers across the Internet should be made to invest in infrastructure as well so that consumers do not ultimately bear the burden of paying inflated costs or additional premiums to maintain their use of an essential service like broadband, especially when they’re not as well-situated as highly profitable commercial interests to pay that price.
As wonderful a resource as it is, broadband is not free. The private sector has invested handsomely in developing this space, and a pro-competitive policy that treats providers of broadband services similarly, and requires them to invest in infrastructure to the extent that they use it, provides a fair approach that will uphold the public interest.
To ensure that competition continues to be abundant in the communications sector, and that policy pertaining to it is implemented fairly, the Federal Communications Commission should be primed to take on a review and enforcement role, where necessary. As the legislative arm of these United States, Congress is imbued with the power and authority to set regulatory frameworks for the broadband sector. The FCC, as an administrative agency, has the duty to ensure those laws are upheld, and it can do that by monitoring industry practices for anti-competitive behavior, adjudicating disputes between parties who claim there has been a competitive violation, and by issuing policy statements offering guidance on the kinds of conduct that qualify as anti-competitive.
Competition is key to a thriving communications marketplace. But lip service without oversight does not do anyone any good. In a market where convergence is key, keeping the consumer experience in mind can help guide Congress to rational competition policies.