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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.

2)   Breaking down the silos. The first white paper on modernizing the Communications Act issued by the House Energy and Commerce Committee notes that "one of the most common criticisms of the [current] Communications Act is the so-called siloed,' sector-based nature of the law and resulting regulation. Each of the titles governs a specific sector of the communications economy with inconsistent approaches to definition and regulation. By dividing the overall regulatory scheme into separate titles based on specific network technologies and services, the law does not contemplate the convergence of technologies in the modern digital era."

But technologies have been converging to create a broad digital infrastructure that blurs, if not erases, traditional distinctions between media. Probably the single most important step that could be taken to move communications policy into the 21st century would be to recognize that virtually all content is becoming bits in a bitstream and to eliminate the old silos and replace them with a more technology-neutral approach that focuses on maximizing connectivity without reference to specific technologies.

One challenge in coming up with a new regulatory scheme is that the older media such as broadcasting and telephony have been subject to fairly detailed regulation, primarily because broadcasters made use of "public airways" while telephony was viewed as a "natural monopoly." But the Internet, which is the heart of the new digital environment, has evolved with virtually no government regulation. A difficult but necessary challenge will be to reconcile these differences in a more consistent, comprehensive regulatory framework.

In an earlier column in this series, I described three innovative approaches to rethinking communications policy that emerged from a discussion among legal scholars, policymakers and industry leaders. One approach begins not with individual technologies but starts from the perspective of users and their needs; the second approach focuses on participants as part of a dynamic ecosystem of participants (including both users and service providers) and attempts to optimize outcomes for the widest group of participants; and the third, more pragmatic approach would concentrate on seeking the best solutions to the most important specific telecom issues likely to confront policymakers in the foreseeable future without necessarily attempting to build a single, overarching policy framework. These approaches are examples of the kind of fresh thinking that is needed to bring regulation into the 21st century.

3)   Streamlining regulation. A third critical challenge that deserves attention is figuring out a way to streamline the process of regulation so that it can keep up with the rapid pace of technological change. While telecommunications regulation is a good poster child for this problem, the issue is broader and encompasses many fields where the pace of tech-driven change is accelerating. The real challenge here is to find ways to protect from harm while permitting investment and innovation to flourish and the competitive marketplace -- rather than government -- to decide on winners and losers. It is virtually certain that new technologies will come along that will offer unexpected benefits but that do not fit neatly in existing regulatory categories.


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