Sunset the FCC?

Article excerpt


Reforming telecommunications law is a favored subject in the halls of Congress this year. Hot issues include streamlining video franchising and addressing the "net neutrality" access concerns of application and content companies. But don't let Congress fool you: It's not interested in real reform. If it were, the discussion would be less about single issues and more about how to reform the institution that implements and enforces communications law - the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC exists almost as it was when it was established way in 1934. Of the three major telecom reform bills circulating in Congress, none has addressed institutional reform at the FCC. The draft bill of Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican, and that of Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, address pertinent issue areas like video franchising that certainly need reform. A bill by Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, is the most deregulatory of the three, relying as it does on antitrust principles instead of public interest regulation, but it still leaves in place a fully intact FCC.

As a result, all the telecom reform bills both overappreciate and underestimate new Internet communications. They go too far to apply new laws to Internet services, yet don't go far enough to strip away at core institutional regulation in light of the growth and of these Internet services. Watching policymakers neglect or mangle telecommunications reform gives the impression they wouldn't recognize deregulation if it was on fire and rollerblading naked past them.

If ever an economic sector needed a coherent vision for substantial liberalization, the massive telecommunications marketplace is it. If we were starting from a clean slate in today's world, we wouldn't create a Federal Communications Commission with command over price, entry and services. Internet technologies have been among mankind's most liberating technologies; erasing distance, making broadcasters of thousands. Today's communications landscape has given individuals a freedom of speech that the framers could never have imagined.

When Republicans swept Congress in 1995, they proposed abolishing several agencies. But the implementation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 entrenched the FCC. Today's telecom reform agenda seeks new realms to rule, even as the very need for regulation evaporates. In the latest Unified Agenda of Federal Regulations, 146 rules originate from the FCC. The FCC's budget has increased 24 percent from five years ago.

Public interest and airwave scarcity rationalizations have long justified telecom regulation. …