A couple of former House Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman stopped by their old committee room April 7 to make a pitch for Communications Act reform and the IP transition, including getting more spectrum out of government users and setting a deadline for the migration to all IP networks.
Democrat Rick Boucher, honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) and Republican Jack Fields, CEO, Twenty-First Century Group, agreed that the new communications law needs to break down old regulatory silos, and perhaps in the process could break down some of the political walls that have been built up as well.
Boucher pointed out that two thirds of the population has abandoned circuit switched networks, and only 5% relied exclusively on them for their phone service.
Fields and Boucher both worked on the 1996 Act. Fields said that if there was one mistake they made, it was to give the FCC too much discretion. He said in hindsight he would have made the language more prescriptive, almost a red light/green light model, rather than a yellow light. He said his advice this time around would be to be "very careful" about open-ended language.
The FCC is even now trying to find the proper Communications Act authority for Internet access regulations as it recrafts language in its open Internet order per a court review of its network neutrality rules.
Both Fields and Boucher said they respected current chair Tom Wheeler and suggested he was doing the best job he could.
Boucher gave the FCC credit for its approach to the IP transition, creating trials but pledging to preserve the core values of the old circuit switched network for public safety and universal access. Everyone will get a connection and no one will be left behind, he said.
He said the new IP world would not be a regulation-free zone, but said that companies should not be forced to maintain that old network, designed by Alexander Graham Bell in the late 1800s and still functioning essentially in the same way, as though it were the principal communications network.
Fields said he saw an opportunity for both sides of the aisle to work together in a bipartisan fashion on new communications law, hearkening to the days when he and then House member Democrat Ed Markey would play basketball and discuss the 1996 Act over a pizza.
Boucher praised the deliberate approach current Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) are taking to the communications law rewrite, which he suggested could result in a bill as early as 2016. He pointed out that the 1996 Act had its genesis in legislation in 1988, but said he hoped it was not going to take as long as that.
Boucher outlined the IIA's top legislative priorities in the current Communications Subcommittee's couple-year effort to rewrite the act. Those are:
1. Transition to an all broadband network using trials, and by a date certain at the end of this decade.
2. Realign the FCC's regulatory structure to reflect cross-platform competition and treat like services alike.
3. Create an innovative way to reallocate government spectrum, perhaps through financial incentives or a BRAC-like base closing commission.
4. Allow for more flexible use of spectrum licenses, including for broadcasters, so they can take advantage of secondary market and lease opportunities.