Verizon advocates new role for FCC

Executive asks Congress to create an "updated role" for government in telecommunications regulation

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should get out of the business of creating broadband regulations and only step into an enforcement role when customers complain about service, a Verizon Communications executive said Wednesday.

Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications, called on the FCC and the U.S. Congress to create an "updated role" for government in telecommunications regulation, particularly for rules related to broadband Internet access and services that run over broadband.

Tauke, a former Republican congressman, called for an end to what he called "anticipatory regulation" designed to head off problems before they exist. Instead, government should allow a "market-driven" approach where broadband carriers are free to offer the services they choose.

"This does not mean there is no role for government; it simply means that there is an updated role for government," said Tauke, speaking at a policy forum sponsored by conservative think tank the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF). "Government should not be on the field, calling the plays, nor should it be writing the rules. Instead it should fill a referee-like role: observing the field of play, responding to complaints by any of the players and addressing cases of market failure."

The goal of PFF's policy forum was to address the so-called "Net neutrality principles," a set of guidelines endorsed by the FCC that would allow broadband customers to have access to any content, attach any device and run any application on the network, as long as the customer was acting legally and was not harming the network.

Some lawmakers and consumer groups have pushed for those principles to be required by law, but the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Verizon and some other broadband providers have objected, saying a law isn't necessary and could make it more difficult for providers to enter into business relationships with content providers or to block bandwidth hogs or virus writers.

Tauke spent little time addressing Net neutrality, instead using his keynote speech to more broadly call for an end to nearly all broadband regulations. As an example, Tauke criticized a draft broadband reform bill released last week by the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

Some observers have described the draft bill as helpful to large telecom companies such as Verizon that are looking to provide video over IP (Internet Protocol) services in competition with cable television providers. The bill would streamline local franchise requirements, but it also includes a Net neutrality requirement.

"Some policy makers do take a lot of comfort in using the power of government to shape the market," Tauke said, talking about the draft bill and some other telecom legislation before Congress. "They want to imagine all of the things that could possibly go wrong, and then write rules to prevent them from happening."

Government regulators trying to predict the direction technology will take is "a fool's errand," he added.

Tauke criticized the draft bill for appearing to require that broadband video providers include traditional Internet access on set-top television converter boxes. Consumers can already buy equipment to view the Internet on television monitors without such a requirement, he said. The bill also leaves open the possibility of Congress requiring video over IP providers to build out their systems to cover the same areas that cable television providers now cover, he added.

"We're the third video provider in the market, after cable and satellite," Tauke said. "Why would government want to tell us how we approach the customer and how we offer the service?"

While Tauke's speech played to a mostly sympathetic crowd, some questioned how the FCC could perform a purely referee-like role. "When you talk about the FCC moving from its rule-writing capabilities to more of a referee and enforcement capability, what rules would it enforce?" said Art Brodsky, communications director for Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group.

Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, also questioned why customers would want broadband services, where subscribers now generally have a choice over what content they receive, to move toward an unregulated cable television model. Consumers should decide what content they receive over broadband, not the providers, she added.

Sohn is interested in receiving two TV channels, the premium channels Showtime and HBO, but she has to pay for 100 other channels, plus pay extra for the premium channels, just to get those two channels, she said.

"That's not consumer empowerment; that's profoundly consumer unfriendly," she said.

While Sohn called for a Net neutrality law, others advocated alteratives. The Internet industry should be able to self-regulate on issues such as Net neutrality, said David McClure, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Internet Industry Association.

"Why within the Congress and within the federal agencies is there so much distrust of our ability to handle a marketplace driven by consumers?" he said.

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