More Freedom, Or Less, in Next Phase of Communications Regulation?


source: W.H. Dutton
Among key issues Berin Szóka, TechFreedom president believes U.S. communications policy makers should take up to “break a logjam” are some issues widely acknowledged to be top issues (network neutrality), some that are enduring issues (promoting broadband) and some that arguably do not register.

The enduring issues for broadband deployment include the key issues of how to simultaneously promote deployment, adoption and competition. That is a key balancing act, as incentives for investment and competition tend to be rival goods.

When competition wrings too much of the profit out of the business, there is reduced incentive to invest, and heavy barriers to robust investment in new facilities. On the other hand, without effective competition, consumer welfare is harmed.

Net neutrality has been a hugely-contentious issue. The present “strong form” of network neutrality, which not only restricts consumer access to “best effort only” also is viewed by some as a mandate to outlaw other practices such as zero rating or quality of service mechanisms.

That might be difficult, long term, as internet access moves increasingly to support bandwidth-intensive entertainment video, while many new services require latency control.

The least talked about issue is outdated regulation by silo. Traditionally, different media types and industry segments were regulated in highly-disparate ways. Print content was unregulated. Broadcast TV and radio were somewhat regulated, as was cable TV and other linear video platforms.

Voice and messaging were viewed through the lens of common carrier regulation, and highly regulated. Internet access once was unregulated; now has been regulated as a common carrier service.

As appropriate as that might have been in the legacy era, it increasingly makes no sense in the internet era, where all media types are accessible over the internet and IP networks. The mess is that the same apps, services and industry segments (equivalent functionality is probably the better phrase) wind up regulated in different ways. That violates our sense of “fairness,” equal treatment and distorts competition.

Looking only at internet access, fixed network telcos no longer are anywhere the “dominant providers.” That role is held by cable TV operators. In the linear video business, AT&T now is the largest supplier by market share.

In the voice business, “leadership” counts almost for nothing, as voice increasingly is a feature, not the industry revenue driver. The same holds for messaging.

In the mobile business, telco leadership soon will be tested as cable operators become major suppliers in that market.

The issue now is how to harmonize, update and modernize the rules relating to regulation of like services, despite “industry legacy.” As always, the choices are to lighten or tighten regulation, either relying on the rules that presently apply to the most-free segments, or impose the more-stringent existing rules on the lesser-regulated industry segments.

More freedom, or less. That always is the fundamental question.
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