Washington

Editorial: The Task at Hand

12/17/2012 12:01:00 AM Eastern

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski last week announced he is
creating a new task force to oversee the transition from circuit-switched
copper networks made for phone calls to IP networks
that will carry information of all kinds into the digital age.

The task force will bring together staffers from
various FCC bureaus, sort of like an in-house
version of the call from outside the bureau to
get rid of the regulatory silos that different media
are now put in, even though different media are
increasingly cross-pollinating. Cable operators
are broadband providers are phone companies,
and broadcasters are website operators are mobile
content providers. You get the idea, and so
apparently does the FCC.

“Technological transitions don’t change the
basic mission of the FCC,” the chairman said
on Dec. 11. “But technology changes can drive
changes in markets and competition, and many of
the commission’s existing rules draw technologybased
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.”

Amen to that.

The new task force will have a “particular focus
on voice services,” according to the commission.
Part of the impetus appears to have
been Superstorm Sandy and calls from Congress
for more FCC oversight of communications
networks’ emergency readiness; the calls
for getting rid of some copper wire-era regs from
phone companies switching to IP were likely another
part of it. But another, similar task force
is needed, this one with a “particular focus” on
video services.

The FCC has sought comment on how it
should define Multichannel Video Programming
Distributor (MVPD) in the new world of TV Everywhere—
a question that will need answering
sooner rather than later.

The courts will ultimately weigh in on whether
over-the-top video in markets with TV station
signals can be delivered as part of an online
service without having to negotiate payments
with broadcasters, and the Sky Angel complaint
over whether an IP-delivered service warrants
program-access rights will eventually have to be
resolved. But a piecemeal approach is a stopgap
measure and does not supply the vaunted regulatory
certainty required so that online video providers
can make plans for an online video future
the FCC itself says is coming—one which it is
actively promoting.

So we think the FCC should create a similar
task force, a brain trust of over-the-top guns
from various bureaus who can do some of the
heavy mental lifting on the issue.

Politically, redefining MVPD to include
online providers brings with it a
host of challenges, like avoiding content
regulation of the Internet, which is
just the sort of thing the U.S. was battling
last week at the WCIT TV conference
in Dubai. But not defining MVPD
also raises issues. For instance, would
it prompt traditional MVPDs to move
to over-the-top entirely to avoid existing
access and carriage obligations?

The FCC has asked whether it
needs to open a separate proceeding
on the issue. While that’s a recipe for
kicking the can a little further down
the street, it also may be necessary,
because to make that call in the context
of the Sky Angel complaint invites
charges of too big a change after
too little vetting.

In an exclusive interview with B&C this week, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel
had it about right. “The commission
should not favor one technology or business
plan over another,” she said. “It should be up to
consumers to decide which services they want!
And if our rules are barriers to entry or distorting
the evolution of video markets, we need to
take steps to address that.”

But it won’t be easy, thanks to all those regulatory
silos that are increasingly cramped and
irrelevant. “This agency is going to continue
to struggle to apply the laws of the present to
the way we are going to watch in the future,”
Rosenworcel said. “We would benefit from having
a broader proceeding and getting more industry
input.”

So would industries looking to plan their futures,
and sooner rather than later. The political
wisdom is to avoid a tough call for as long as
possible, but technology doesn’t play politics or
cool its heels in the outer office while government
officials try to run out the clock.

September
October