Yesterday's News

I’m here in Arlington, Virginia, at TPRC, the annual research conference for telecom policy and cyberlaw. I’ve been going for several years, since I was at the FCC; it’s a unique venue that brings together scholars, government staff, and policy advocates in an academic setting. That makes it possible to float new ideas and cross boundaries in ways that aren’t possible once you take the short trip across the river into Washington DC. Last year I joined the board of the organization that organizes TPRC, in part to bring more Internet and cyberlaw discussion into the event.

Anyway, this is all background for the session last night, a debate between former FCC Chairman Dick Wiley and Reed Hundt. Wiley is the eminence griese of telecom policy, an influential Republican lawyer and lobbyist best known as the driving force behind the US plan for digital television. Hundt, who was my boss at the FCC and has close ties to Al Gore, is an ascerbic, brilliant character, never hesitant to create a cotroversy.

Reed readily conceded that the debate over “unbundling” incumbent phone and cable networks was “yesterday’s news.” He praised the current FCC, led by Republican Kevin Martin, for its deregulatory policy toward the phone companies. That was shocking to some, The unbundling rules were among the most visibile products of Hundt’s tenure at the FCC. But as Reed pointed out, the entire logic of the 1996 Telecom Act was to create competition for voice telephone service. Today, it’s clear that voice pricing is going to zero. Voice will be an application or feature on top of broadband networks. So, Reed argued, let’s create as much broadband competition as we can (in part by reallocating wireless spectrum now kept idle by television networks), and radically deregulate everything on top.

I’m not doing justice to his argument (and certainly not to the presentation). But I think it’s important to appreciate Hundt’s point. The Brand X decision this summer, in which the Supreme Court endorsed the FCC’s rejection of unbundling rules for cable networks, closed a chapter in telecom policy. We need to realize that the landscape today is radically different.