December a landmark month for communications policy

This week marked the 100th anniversary of the Kingsbury Commitment, the 1913 agreement between American Telephone & Telegraph and the U.S. government that settled the government’s antitrust investigation into the phone company, and organized the burgeoning system of telephone networks into a regulated monopoly structure for the next 71 years.

It’s an understatement to say that technology has changed drastically in the century since Kingsbury. The 21st-century communications ecosystem was on full display earlier this month when Representatives Greg Walden and Fred Upton announced their intent to revisit the Communications Act in 2015. The two representatives made their announcement via Google Hangout, a sign of how far communications technology has advanced since the Act was last updated in 1996. As technological convergence continues to blur the line between content company and service provider, and as consumers continue their march away from copper landlines toward IP services, Reps. Walden and Upton’s initiative is a welcome development.

If live video chat is going to become the dominant mode of communications, then customers are going to need a lot more spectrum to carry their signals. In addition to two auctions scheduled to take place in 2014, last week the FCC announced its plan to conduct the incentive auction of spectrum currently used by broadcasters in 2015. Many have noted that the reverse auction for this 600 MHz band will be the most complex proceeding it has ever attempted. The FCC must ensure that enough broadcasters participate in order to raise sufficient revenues – part of which will be used to fund the FirstNet public safety network – and to get out much-needed spectrum to continue to fuel the red-hot mobile broadband marketplace. The stakes are high for this proceeding: 300+ million US mobile customers, potentially billions of connected devices, and the entire apps economy. Chairman Wheeler was on the mark when he said “there is but one chance to get the incentive auction right.” (Read our take on the auction).

Also this month, several “digital policy pioneers” gathered for a panel on Internet policy in the early days of the web, in an event hosted by the Progressive Policy Institute. Each participant of the distinguished panel spoke about the decisions they made during the early Internet policy-making years that have led to today’s broadband revolution. The theme that emerged from the event could be best described with the phrase “Do no harm.” Ira Magaziner noted the importance of the decision to allow the Internet to remain tax-and tariff-free. The Hon. Bill Kennard pointed to the “unregulated oasis” established for the application layer of the old telephone network as a successful model that has been carried forward to the broadband era. And the Hon. Karen Kornbluh spoke to the importance of getting the rest of the world on-board with the promise of privately owned networks. (Watch a video of the talk here.)

As 2013 draws to a close, we’re looking forward to what’s sure to be an exciting year for tech and telecom policy.