Opinion by Richard Adler

Tech policy belongs on the 2016 campaign agenda

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.

Attention must be paid

One good thing that came out of the net neutrality debate was that it established unequivocally that having access to the Internet and the resources that it provides is critically important to millions of people. Thanks to the pervasiveness of wired and wireless broadband, high-speed, virtually instantaneous access to the Internet is now almost taken for granted. For many of us, this is a matter of daily personal experience: We rely on the Internet for many vital aspects of our lives, from keeping in touch with friends and family to keeping up with the news, getting instant answers to questions, navigating the world, and much more.

But the importance of the Internet goes beyond these aspects of daily life. It is a key forum for political discourse; it is the primary channel over which financial transactions are conducted; it provides the infrastructure that now underlies virtually every industry sector; and it is a vital platform that supports and accelerates the innovation that is driving economic growth and keeping this country competitive globally.

Realistically, it will be difficult for communications and technology regulations to feature prominently in the presidential debates. But the reality is that these issues are intimately connected to the challenge of maintaining healthy growth and ensuring economic opportunity for all Americans, and any platform that calls for faster economic growth needs to include communications policy.

Three key issues

There are several good reasons why the issue of communications policy deserves attention. Let me point out three key areas where change is urgently needed:

1)   Freeing up more spectrum faster. We live in a mobile world. Today, there are 4.3 billion mobile users worldwide (59% of the global population). According to Cisco, there will be 5.2 billion mobile users worldwide (69% of the global population) by 2019. At the same time, Cisco projects that the amount of data sent and received by the average user will grow nearly eightfold, from 359MB per month to 2.8GB per month. As a result, worldwide mobile data traffic will grow nearly 10 times, from 2.5 exabytes per month to 24.3 exabytes per month (1 exabyte is a million terabytes).

The lifeblood of wireless mobility is spectrum. The government has begun to open up additional spectrum for wireless communications, but it needs to do more. More than half of all spectrum is reserved for government use (Scott Cleland, chairman of Net Competition, has estimated that the government still controls approximately 85% of all spectrum), despite a widely held view that the government tends not to use this resource efficiently. Several innovative strategies for increasing the transfer of spectrum from public to private users have been offered, including a system that would effectively charge government agencies for their spectrum use rather than treating it as a free good. An election campaign that includes a debate about spectrum policy would be a good way to surface additional ideas for freeing up spectrum. Also worth exploring are proposals to increase the efficiency by using advanced technologies to build more sophisticated wireless devices that enable spectrum to be shared.

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.

Here, too, legal scholars and thoughtful policymakers have proposed new approaches to regulation that attempt to replace rigid regulatory schemes with more flexible arrangements that recognize the complex and dynamic nature of the telecommunications environment. For example, attorney Richard Whitt has proposed an approach that he calls “adaptive policymaking.” And a more recent paper on “Reforming Regulation to Drive International Competitiveness” by Joseph V. Kennedy, former chief economist for the Department of Commerce, enumerates a set of principles that modern regulators should adopt that includes anticipating innovation, recognizing the value of time, embracing transparency and reducing the costs of overregulation.

Bringing communications policy into a presidential campaign may seem challenging, but the purpose of electoral campaigns is to deal with issues of importance to the American people. Winning candidates often succeed by offering fresh, bold ideas for change. And campaigns offer valuable opportunities for “teachable moments” to help educate voters about important issues.

Modern Internet-based networks are now involved with virtually every aspect of life. Emerging technologies like the cloud and the Internet of Things will spread their impact even further, making them an ever-more central part of life and commerce. Concerns about privacy and cybersecurity are topics in the news that can offer “hooks” for candidates to lead to larger issues.

The reality is that communications and technology policy is too urgent and important not to be discussed and debated in the upcoming campaign.

Richard Adler is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. He has written widely about the future of broadband and its impact on fields such as education, healthcare, government and commerce.

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