If there’s one fact that communications policy experts can agree on, it’s this: the communications landscape has changed dramatically since Congress last visited the Communications Act in 1996. The evolution in technology, computation, software and competition has been accompanied by a seismic shift in consumer preferences.
Whereas the Communications Act has its roots in 19th-century railroad regulation and was designed for the “Ma Bell” monopoly era, today’s landscape looks decidedly different. Today, consumers are no longer tied to their ten-digit telephone number. They can choose to communicate in any number of ways, including voice, text, e-mail, video chat, social networking apps and others, with the Internet and broadband networks providing a platform for continued innovations. In the almost two decades following the last revisions to the Act, companies traditionally regulated by the FCC compete among themselves and with those historically outside the reach of the FCC.
The Communications Act currently consists of several titles that define and govern specified sectors of the communications space in different ways, as if those sectors exist separately – without overlap – and warrant different treatment. Twenty years ago, this may have been the case, but today it is not. Technology and competition have evolved to the point where many communications players do not operate within just one of the traditionally defined sectors.
For example, Microsoft’s Skype and Apple’s FaceTime provide popular – and free – web-based alternatives to traditional telephone service. Similarly, Facebook competes with mobile carriers in the text messaging space with its $19B acquisition of WhatsApp. And, while Google’s main business is Internet search, it competes via YouTube with other video providers in the content/media space, competes via Android and Chrome with Microsoft and Apple in the operating system space, competes via Google Voice in voice communications, and competes via Google Fiber with cable and telephone companies in the broadband space.
Unlike their more heavily regulated counterparts, most of these competitors have not been subject to the same legacy regulatory regime, which often requires permission to introduce new services and features or to move away from others that fail to meet consumer demands. This is not to suggest that the same type of prescriptive regulation that traditionally was applied to legacy voice providers now should apply to newer competitors and services from the other “silos.” Just the opposite: consumers will benefit most if Congress adopts a new policy framework that more accurately reflects the nature of competition in today’s communications marketplace and provides all companies in the communication and Internet ecosystem with the flexibility necessary to encourage innovation and investment, while simultaneously protecting consumer interests. In short, a modern definition and approach to communications policy should embrace the dynamic competition in today’s market, while allowing for future innovations and market participants.
Dismantling the regulatory “silos” is the first step toward a modern communications policy framework that enables service providers to give their customers more of everything.