Digital Crossroads: American Telecommunications Policy in the Internet Age

Article excerpt

* Digital Crossroads: American Telecommunications Policy in the Internet Age By Jonathan E. Nuechterlein and Philip J. Weiser Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005. Pp. xvii, 670. $40.00 cloth.

Revolutionary improvements in computing and information technology, falling prices for equipment and services, and rapidly changing industry structures have turned telecommunications markets upside down.

Twenty years ago virtually all telephone service was provided over copper wires. Today, more than 160 million wireless telephones are in use, exceeding the number of traditional wireline subscriptions. Wireless and Voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services are eroding wireline demand by 7 percent per year. More Internet subscribers now use broadband access than use dial-up connections.

A similar inversion has occurred in video-distribution markets. Television programs once were distributed as free over-the-air broadcasts. Today, 75 percent of households subscribe to cable TV, and another 10 percent receive direct satellite transmissions. Viewers can look forward to watching digital television on third-generation wireless telephone sets and to receiving streaming video over broadband power-line connections.

Behind these agreeable advances lies a world of regulatory uncertainty. The transition from de jure monopoly and oligopoly to de jure, if not yet de facto, competition, coupled with a technological "convergence" that treats all communications as indistinguishable streams of 1s and 0s, has led unexpectedly to increased federal regulation. Most of this increase occurred after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which was heralded initially as the most comprehensive deregulatory and competition-enhancing legislation ever enacted. The act is seen today as having failed to accomplish these objectives. A deregulated and fully competitive telecommunications industry remains an abstract vision as pressure mounts for yet another legislative effort to get regulation right.

Digital Crossroads: American Telecommunications Policy in the Internet Age ably documents telecommunications' struggling policy transition from pervasive industry regulation to regulated quasi-competition during a period of rapid technological change. The authors, Jonathan E. Nuechterlein and Philip J. Weiser, bring impressive credentials to this effort. Each is a lawyer and former Supreme Court clerk: Nuechterlein also served as deputy general counsel to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and presently practices telecommunications law in Washington; and Weiser was a principal telecommunications advisor to the Justice Department and now toils in academia. Their book is a readable, comprehensive, and thoroughly documented tutorial covering the policy aspects of voice, data, video, and Internet services, as well as the key aspects of such related issues as carrier-compensation conflicts, spectrum allocation, standards setting, and embedded "subsidies" for rural subscribers, hospitals, libraries, schools, and telecommunications research. It provides just enough technical detail and economic background to place the policy issues in perspective. The book is certain to become a primary reference for industry practitioners, regulators, attorneys, historians, and students.

The authors describe their effort as twofold: "First . . . to help non-specialists climb this fields' formidable learning curve," and "[s]econd . . . to make substantive contributions to the major policy debates within the field" (p. xv). They succeed admirably well on the first count, which in turn furthers the attainment of their second objective. The book takes a balanced approach to policy analysis, fully elaborating competing options and arguments across the full spectrum of pending issues. Its focus throughout is on competition policy, substitutability and conflicts among rival technologies and delivery platforms, and the dramatic transformations being wrought by the Internet. …