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Wireless World: 'Fiction' Of Telecom Rules

Technology entrepreneurs are creating a continual array of new technologies, from wireless-fidelity networks to high-speed Internet, for mobile consumers and business people, none of which were envisioned only a decade ago. The problem is, the federal government's rules for telecom technology - first written in the 1930s and revised about 10 years ago - have not kept pace with these dramatic technological changes.
by Gene Koprowski
Chicago (UPI) Oct 11, 2004
Futurist Marshall McLuhan once famously wrote that the medium is the message. The phrase has become a credo for the telecommunications industry during the last 30 or so years. Trouble is, there are so many media today, the message is getting garbled.

Technology entrepreneurs are creating a continual array of new technologies, from wireless-fidelity networks to high-speed Internet, for mobile consumers and business people, none of which were envisioned only a decade ago.

The problem is, the federal government's rules for telecom technology - first written in the 1930s and revised about 10 years ago - have not kept pace with these dramatic technological changes.

Many people are concerned that our country's communications laws are set up in a rigid pattern of the past, said Rick Whitt, senior director of global policy and planning at MCI, during a forum last week sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute, an arm of the Democratic Leadership Council, in Washington, D.C.

The forum was open to reporters nationwide via teleconference.

Next year may be an apropos time for Congress to rewrite telecommunications laws, and help clarify the rules for industry and consumers, who are growing accustomed to receiving entertainment delivered by mobile phone providers and Internet access via cable TV outlets.

A debate is beginning on the rules for the future of technology and telecommunications, and it likely will consume policymakers on Capitol Hill and in the White House in the coming years, and impact the lives of consumers for decades to come.

The outcome of that debate is far from clear, as technologies continue to emerge that are changing the way consumers - and the government - think about information and entertainment.

Should we be thinking about another approach? Rob Atkinson, director of the New Economy Project and PPI vice president, asked forum attendees. Should we be thinking about the pipes being regulated in one way, and the applications in another?

Back in the 1930s, when radio and telephones still operated in relative infancy, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the nascent industries. The FCC, in turn, created rules governing how, for example, the radio spectrum would be shared and how telephone service had to be provided.

Each one of the titles in the Communications Act covers a different technology, Whitt said. It's been this way since 1934 when the act was passed.

Atkinson likened the way the rules for the different industries have been set by the government to a stand of grain silos on the Midwestern prairie, with each technology industry under the communications act seen as a separate, self-contained entity.

Cable is in one silo, radio is in another, he said. Why are we still regulating in silos? We're moving to a system where the applications are separated from the medium of delivery. We're entering a high-speed, digital, packet-switched world. All of those applications will be in Internet form.

When video and voice are delivered wirelessly to consumers, or over the Internet - and not over telephone lines, broadcast stations or cable outlets - a layered approach that regulates the delivery mechanisms in one way, and the applications in another, may serve consumers better, Whitt said.

Our telecom laws are largely becoming a legal fiction as time goes on, he said.

The approach embraced by MCI would regulate content, applications, protocols and transmission modes differently. Meantime, the providers of each layer would be treated equally.

MCI and its allies have drafted a proposed Internet Innovation and Competition Act of 2005, which they hope will be embraced by Congress next year.

It will probably be 2007 by the time we are done, Whitt noted. This is a market-created phenomenon. It seems to be the way that most people accept new applications.

Whitt said many of the statements by FCC Chairman Michael Powell seem to, in Whitt's opinion, come close to embracing this approach to new regulation of telecommunications and technology.

Not all players in the telecom industry accept this approach, however. Some want to reject it.

Link Hoeing, assistant vice president for issues management and technology policy at Verizon, said the approach being offered by MCI and its allies is unsound.

Silos are an inadequate way to look at the industry going forward, Hoeing said, adding that competition between service providers will keep prices low, and satisfy consumers. The key issue is (whether) people have better prices, more alternatives, more choices.

One new innovation that debuted this past spring is Wi-Fi service for commuters at the University of California at San Diego, called the Cyber Shuttle, which gives travelers access to high-speed Internet while they ride to and from campus.

Innovations appear almost daily in this industry. A recent survey by Morgan Stanley, the investment bank, examined the cable-modem and digital-subscriber-line markets. The survey showed that both cable modems and DSL are growing, and most consumers have access to cable.

There (is) a fairly wide range of alternatives for people in the market, said Hoeing, citing the bank's technology report. A move toward less regulation will help create incentives for investment.

On the other hand, Children, The Digital Divide and Federal Policy, a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, said many disparities exist in the quality of access that individuals - in particular, low-income individuals - have to the Internet.

Hoeing noted there are 1 billion users on the Internet today, and competition will continue to generate innovations there, without government intervention.

I use Opera - I don't use Internet explorer, Hoeing said. Lots of people use other browsers.

Whitt said he hoped the government would adopt his proposed new mode of regulating telecommunications in the coming years. They can adopt it as a guiding principle, they can adopt binding regulations, or they can adopt it as a governing statute. Or, they can do all three in concert."

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