#CommActUpdate: Congress should focus on competition, consumer choice

By: Peter Davidson

Last month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee requested communications industry stakeholders to weigh in on the legislative effort to modernize the legal and regulatory framework governing the country’s communications sector. Verizon submitted comments, which you can read here.

The communications marketplace is almost unrecognizable from the days of the most recent telecom law revision in 1996. The dizzying array of choices that consumers now have to communicate – and the wide range of players competing to meet consumers’ communications needs – bears scant resemblance to the voice-centric world of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“’96 Act”).

The world reflected in the existing statute (which was concerned mostly with archaic issues like local vs. long distance service) has been replaced by a truly competitive, dynamic marketplace in which consumers can choose to communicate in an ever-expanding number of ways, including voice, text, tweets, e-mail, video chat, social networks and others. The Internet and broadband networks today provide a platform for continuing innovation and choices. Within this Internet ecosystem, network providers, applications providers, device manufacturers, online service providers and others simultaneously cooperate and compete to meet consumers’ evolving communications demands.

The potential of the new Internet ecosystem has barely been tapped, particularly in areas of health care, education and energy management. For example, applying broadband to modern medicine could yield amazing new technologies such as remote robotic surgery, or the real-time analysis of critical 3-D body scans as an ambulance speeds a patient to the hospital. Similarly, the right governance framework would unleash new solutions to the U.S. electrical grid. 200 million “smart meters” will be put in use this year, connecting the utility grid to M2M and cloud platforms and allowing supply and demand of energy to be managed more efficiently. This fully connected world is a few years away, but already we’re seeing how IT can save energy in technology-driven models emerging everywhere you look. And in education, major universities are innovating with massive open online courses, or “MOOCs,” which extend the traditional bricks-and-mortar model. New online players, like the Khan Academy, have introduced the idea of the “flipped classroom,” where students watch instructional videos online at their own pace, and use classroom time to engage with their teachers and peers. A new governance framework that promotes experimentation, invention and investment will spur collaboration among users, entrepreneurs, and developers to drive the next wave of solutions to our most pressing societal challenges.

Given the fundamental changes in the communications sector, Congress shouldn’t just tweak the current statute, but instead start from scratch and create a policy and regulatory framework that fits the 21st Century broadband world.

As Congress considers a framework for the 21st Century broadband world, Verizon suggests that it remain focused on a few long-standing goals that will remain relevant regardless of where the marketplace evolves next: protecting consumers, promoting competition, and encouraging investment and innovation. Furthering these goals requires a change of course from the old ways of regulating.

In place of today’s outdated framework, Congress should embrace an approach based on consumer choice, competition and effective multi-stakeholder processes to address emerging issues or market failures. Consumers will benefit from such a framework because it will encourage experimentation and collaboration that will help unleash the transformative power of technology. This new framework should also include an effective governmental backstop with tools for the federal government to step in as needed to protect competition and consumers when and if real problems arise. This approach of addressing issues as they arise is preferable to inflexible, anticipatory regulations which risk either over-regulating and inhibiting innovation, or under-regulating and failing to address consumer harm in today’s rapidly changing marketplace.

Finally, it’s important for Congress to consider a review of policies in other areas – such as public safety, accessibility and spectrum management – that will continue to be important even as technology and the ways people communicate continue to evolve.
We are appreciative of the Committee’s thoughtful and inclusive approach to modernization any telecom laws, and look forward to working with all stakeholders to design an Internet governance framework that fits 21st-century technology.

Verizon's complete comments [PDF]

Peter Davidson is responsible for federal legislative affairs and global public policy at Verizon. Before joining the company, Davidson served as general counsel assisting the United States Trade Representative in negotiating and implementing trade agreements and supervising litigation at the World Trade Organization. Prior to becoming general counsel to the USTR in February 2001, Davidson was vice president for Congressional Affairs at Qwest, coordinating all federal legislative activities for that company.