This week Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) introduced comprehensive telecom reform legislation which, as Adam Thierer notes, is a 135-page monster, represents a counterproductive obsession on the part of some policymakers over the smallest details of communications policy and doesn’t tear down any of the old regulatory paradigms that it sould.
That said, the proposal would move the country in a positive direction in several respects.
- Net Neutrality
— Unlike the House bill, which grants the FCC specific new authority to enforce the commission’s net neutrality principles — and which is guaranteed to lead to questionable enforcement proceedings and perhaps litigation between grasping and delusional competitors — the Stevens bill wisely requires the FCC to merely keep a watchful eye on industry practices and issue annual reports for 5 years. The reports may contain recommendations, but the commission may not recommend new rulemaking authority for itself. Unfortunately, the commission shall report on peering and other business arrangements that are appropriate objects for antitrust — if egregious — but not for an agency which is not governed by a clear and principled competition standard which emphasizes consumer welfare, as Randy May and the Regulatory Framework Working Group have outlined. It is unnecessary to include any provision regarding net neutrality in telecom reform legislation, as I have argued here, for example. However, Senator Stevens has the best net neutrality proposal so far.
- Video Franchising — The proposal encourages negotiations between cities and competitive entrants, but establishes a 30-day shot clock and eliminates the ability of the cities to extort in-kind contributions (beyond 1% of gross revenues for Public, Educational and Governmental channels) or set anticompetitive buildout requirements. It also ensures comparable treatment for cable operators who face competition from a new entrant. Unfortunately, the proposal preserves almost all of the existing video regulations — such as must-carry, PEG and I-Nets — even though the market is competitive and all vendors need to be able to raise vast sums of capital to deliver broadband speeds of 50 mbps to 100 mbps.
- Universal Service — On the distribution side, the bill would require periodic audits of universal service recipients and would set up a review process to prevent waste, fraud and abuse. That Senator Stevens, one of the strongest defenders of universal service, acknowledges the potential for waste, fraud and abuse in what is nothing more or less than an entitlement program is welcome and significant. Although this is a great start, ways must be found to ensure that the size of the fund declines as technology reduces the cost of services. One way to do this is to mandate price caps on all recipients. Another way is to auction the loans and/or subsidies for broadband services to the providers and the technologies that can offer the service at the lowest cost.
On the contribution side, the bill would authorize the FCC to expand the contribution base in virtually any conceivable way and would hide everything from the Congressional budget process. Sinces taxes and regulation go hand-in-hand, Senator Stevens’ proposal raises the worrisome possibility that not only taxes but also regulation may be coming to the Internet. I’m not sure which is worse: that taxes and regulation could ruin the Internet, or that the Internet might provide potentially limitless opportunities for taxes and regulation to stifle everything else. At a minimum, Congress should cap the fund if its going to give the FCC virtually unlimited authority to collect “fees.”
- Video and Audio Flag — The bill would preserve the brodcasting business model by withholding content from the Internet. This is protectionist and anti-consumer. Congress should not pick winners and losers.
- Sports Freedom — The bill would outlaw exclusive contracts with programming vendors for sporting events. In a free market, exclusive contracts can benefit producers and consumers. Government, as a general matter, should not interfere with private contractual arrangements. On the other hand, these particular arrangements are not the product of a competitive marketplace and have the potential to retard competitive entry. A permanent prohibition is heavy-handed and could be damaging, but some kind of transitional relief seems appropriate.