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Tech policy belongs on the 2016 campaign agenda

Richard Adler | July 16, 2015
Telecommunications policy is likely to be ignored in the presidential election, but it shouldn't be.

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Credit: Allen Brewer, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

The next race for the White House is already well under way, with candidates in each party formally announcing their intention to run for the presidency on a regular basis. The issues that will dominate the political discourse as we move from the primaries to the general election have yet to be determined, although economics and economic opportunity seem to be good bets to loom large in the campaign. Of course, many interest groups will attempt to inject their key issues into the discussion about where the country is and where it should be going.

One topic that seems unlikely to get much traction is telecommunications and technology and the policies that regulate them. Most of the time, telecom regulation has remained what a colleague of mine once described as a "sub-critical policy issue," one that is deemed too complex or too esoteric to command sustained attention from policymakers.

Moving past 1996

For evidence of the truth of this observation, consider the fate of the last effort to enact legislation related to telecommunications regulation. In 2013, two House members -- Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.) -- attempted to launch an effort to "update our nation's communications laws for the Internet era." They pointed out that the last major telecom legislation was passed in 1996 and focused mainly on increasing competition within the telephone industry while giving scant attention to the implications of the rapidly emerging Internet, which had already begun to reshape the communications landscape. And the 1996 act essentially left intact the basic regulatory framework, based on separate silos for different types of services that had been originally established in the 1930s.

One industry observer described the effort to fundamentally rewrite the Communications Act as "titanic, but necessary." The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which Upton chairs, issued a series of useful white papers that identified some important issues and asked some good questions, but beyond that, the effort to update the way communications networks are regulated has languished in the backwaters of legislative inaction.

The net neutrality fight

Last year, one telecom-related issue did attract a great deal of attention from the public as well as from politicians and regulators. One reason that net neutrality sparked such widespread interest is that it reduced -- or seemed to reduce -- the daunting complexity of communications networks and communications policy to a single, either/or choice: Would the principle of treating all Internet traffic the same remain sacrosanct or not?

While the issue generated an enormous amount of heat, it shed relatively little light on deeper issues related to the social and economic roles of telecommunications and how these critical technologies should be regulated. And the Federal Communications Commission, the body that was the focal point of the net neutrality struggle, in order to ensure that it had the authority to act on the issue, decided to regulate Internet service providers as "Title II common carriers," a decades-old category that is of questionable relevance to the current converged digital communications environment. At best, the FCC's decision was an ad hoc improvisation that attempted to resolve a hot issue using old tools; at worst, it was an anachronism that ignored current technological realities.


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