“If I Were the FCC Chairman…” Looks to Revamp Dated FCC and Government Telecommunications Policy

The Free State Foundation held a seminar entitled “If I Were the FCC Chairman…”, featuring three communications policy experts’ takes on how they would change and advance the FCC in the fast-paced technological market. The panelists included Time Warner Cable’s Executive Vice President and Chief Government Relations Officer, Gail MacKinnon; Senior Vice President of Verizon, Craig Silliman; and President and CEO of Public Knowledge Gigi Sohn.

There were several agreements across the board, the most significant being the assertion that should the government turn towards Title II, the results would be, as Sohn put it, “nuclear.” Rather than imposing increased government regulation and policy, all three emphasized the need for a consumer-driven, relatively independent system in which the free market itself can create competition and more efficient programs. As Silliman pointed out, in the free market system, endless trial and error is possible amongst thousands of companies to create the best possible products and programs; however, the government really only gets one shot to get things right.

Another major point that all three speakers emphasized is one that is impossible to deny: today’s technology is moving quickly and will continue to do so over the next several decades. With this rapid industry in which it is impossible to accurately predict the market just ten years ahead, new FCC rules that are not only modern, but also flexible, are desperately needed. MacKinnon opened up the panel with this idea, stating that imposing an outdated set of rules on ISPs would destroy Internet freedom. Silliman pointed out that several anachronistic laws still in place today go back to the age of the telegraph. These ideas were well agreed upon across the board, and everyone reached the conclusion that the future FCC chairman must initiate a major regulation overhaul in order to keep up with recent and future developments.
The demand for increased availability of commercial spectrum, which Silliman deemed the “rocket fuel” of the telecommunications industry, continues to be a focal point for the all-IP transition.

When discussing net neutrality and data caps, the panel was divided, but remained focused on consumers. MacKinnon stated that companies like Time Warner Cable can institute programs that reward users for not using up the entirety of their data cap, thus allowing for greater consumer flexibility. However, Sohn called for an FCC inquiry into the use of data caps, saying that it may betray net neutrality and discriminate between providers, as in the case of Comcast’s Xfinity service being exempt from data caps when used with Xbox 360’s broadband service. Digital Liberty holds that such an inquiry would be unnecessary, as net neutrality remains a solution in search of a problem. Data caps can be a source of competition and an important part of network management in some cases as demonstrated by Time Warner Cable’s rewards program mentioned by MacKinnon.

The three speakers concluded with MacKinnon and Silliman emphasizing the need to look back at the history of technology and communications in order to move forward. Sohn focused on the need for the future FCC chairman to protect the Internet from having the same fate as broadcasting and cable, to keep control dispersed and not in only a few hands.

Former FCC Commissioner Deborah Tate presented her own advice for the closing remarks of the seminar. While echoing the need to update regulation, she took a slightly different angle, emphasizing the Chairman’s need to think globally, rather than just within the FCC. She also rallied a need for more engineers and economists, among which women should represent a greater percentage.

Digital Liberty and Americans for Tax Reform support this emphasis on a consumer-controlled, free market base to FCC regulations. It believes that the Internet should remain a space free of heavy regulation from both the FCC and the government in order to best promote competition, innovation, and expression.