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Originally published Friday, January 23, 2015 at 5:07 PM

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Guest: Sen. Maria Cantwell can lead on communications reform in 2015

Instead of asking the Federal Communications Commission to use its rule-making authority to address net neutrality, we should be asking Congress to completely overhaul the 1996 Communications Act, writes guest columnist John Arthur Wilson.


Special to The Times

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FEW things in our society have changed as fast — and keep changing at a breakneck pace — as communications technology. Last year’s cool gadget is seen as old school today. Thanks to emerging technology, such as Microsoft’s Lync Unified Communications software, I can make a call from my iPad to virtually anywhere around the world. And the wristwatch phone of Dick Tracy is a reality today, no longer confined to just the realm of the comics.

But one thing is firmly stuck in the past: our federal communications laws. Recent announcements from President Obama and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on net neutrality and regulation of the Internet underscore the need for communications reform.

While certainly relevant — and significant — net neutrality is just one piece in the very large communications puzzle. In truth, outdated communications laws drag down our economy, discourage innovation and slow down prosperity.

Instead of asking the Federal Communications Commission to use its rule-making authority to just address net neutrality, we should be asking Congress to completely overhaul the 1996 Communications Act.

Current laws were written for the monopoly-era telephone networks and are just not nimble enough for today’s climate. They are, in short, obsolete in today’s dynamic digital age. Continuing to apply outdated laws to modern networks will set Washington, and the country, down a regulatory road of decreased investment and stifled innovation.

A 2013 report from the Brookings Institution named Seattle the 11th most innovative city in the country. Its tech sector undergirds economic growth, job creation, increased investment and public-private partnerships. To cement this as a standing trend though, I believe that we must update the sector’s regulatory framework, which was last updated in 1996 and originally written in 1934.

Cantwell, with her own background in high-tech work, is uniquely positioned as a senior member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and can provide leadership on this issue.

Why is an update of the Communications Act necessary? The Internet received a single mention during the 1996 rewrite, while long-distance telephone usage was the focal point of the legislation. This leaves the Federal Communications Commission in a tough spot when implementing regulations and interpreting today’s technologies using an archaic — and often irrelevant — regulatory framework.

In the early and mid-1990s, the FCC created policy silos in order to regulate different technologies and different regulatory regimes. In today’s system, the lines are totally blurred. The phone company provides TV and Internet services. Cable companies provide TV — and phone and Internet access. Google — the 800-pound search gorilla — is providing high-speed fiber-optic cable in select communities.

The distinctions between a phone company, cable company, Internet service provider and a global search engine are virtually indistinguishable. The current framework assigns the FCC, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission with differing regulatory authorities. Eliminating these silos and creating a single regulator would streamline the approach and foster further convergence, exemplified by companies like Amazon.com, treating like services the same across the Internet ecosystem.

A Communications Act overhaul would promote a competitive marketplace, allowing incumbents and new entrants a level playing field. Updated broadband policies could address the access-for-all “universal service” principle, as well as the E-rate program, which would bring would bring broadband access to classrooms throughout the state. Spectrum reallocation, issues concerning consumer privacy and data security, Internet access taxes and the much-discussed question of net neutrality all fall under the rewrite umbrella, and each would be afforded the opportunity to be modified.

When the Communications Act was revised in 1996, Democratic and Republican lawmakers came together to update the laws to set modern communications policy of that era. I am optimistic that Cantwell and the rest of Congress will once again meet in the middle and modernize our laws to reflect the dynamic technology sector.

Today’s communications landscape is carpeted with emerging companies, platforms and services that are disrupting, competing and collaborating with each other to offer increasingly faster speeds for Internet service throughout the country. That market competition with realistic rules — not dated monopoly-era telephone regulations — is the best driver for pro-consumer behavior, investment and innovation.

John Arthur Wilson, president of Wilson & Associates Public Affairs, has worked as a congressional aide, a consultant to wireless and technology companies, and chief of staff to former King County Executive Ron Sims.



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