NCTA's Assey: Time To Rethink Regs

4/14/2011 11:05 AM Eastern

National Cable & Telecommunications Association executive vice president James Assey says regulatory reform can be tough, but that the government needs to "disenthrall itself" from the way things have always been done.

That came at a Free State Foundation panel session this week on Federal Communications Commission regulatory reform.

Assey says a call for reform is not a criticism of the FCC, but instead is an opportunity to recognize that the world has changes since statutes were enacted and regs adopted. He called it a celebration of the marketplace having become able to maximize consumer benefits.

Assey points out that there are now 565 cable networks compared to 49 in 1984, when the Cable Act was passed, and few if any phone customers in 1996 (when the Communications Act was last overhauled) and today has 24 million. In 1996, if anybody knew the Internet, it was probably for the sound it made when they picked up the phone on dial-up and today 40 million broadband customers can get speeds over 100 Mbps (Comcast announced Thursday its high-speed service of 105 Mbps was now available to that number).

"We are in the presence of a new age." he said. "and it is important to disenthrall ourselves and think anew as to how we approach that new age."

Assey said, to its credit, this FCC has begun that process by taking on an ambitious task in creating the national broadband plan, particularly its emphasis on private capital, and looking at where the nation was and needs to be. He said there was a recognition that "command and control regulation" needs to recede into the background, so that investment could continue to be unleashed. He also said the FCC had teed up critical issues including USF reform and intercarrier compensation.

But Assey said it was important to have a "strong regulatory screen" that counsels against intervention, particularly where the marketplace is developing rapidly. In the lumpiness and bumpiness of progress and innovation," he said, "there is tremendous consumer benefits."

FCC chief of staff Edward Lazarus said it is certainly not status quo at the commission and that it is not "remotely focused" on the things it was focused on in 1999 when then-FCC chairman Bill Kennard proposed reforms. He said its agenda is forward-looking and "relentlessly focused" on broadband deployment and adoption. but he conceded the FCC's organizational chart is antiquated and does not "recognize fully" the conversion taking place.

He said within the FCC, however, and in the way it operates, a lot has changed notwithstanding the categories visible from the outside.

He pointed to "all kinds of inter-bureau task forces at work" to reflect the converged nature of the communications environment. He said that FCC meeting presentations now include members from a number of bureaus.

He also said the FCC is dedicated to the regulatory reform principles established by the President for reviewing agency decisions to make sure they spur economic growth and innovation, but he said FCC chairman Julius Genachowskihas been committed to that, as a philosophical and based on his private sector experience, from the first day he came to his job.

"Whenever we are considering imposing any new obligations on the industry," he said, "we have to be clear of why we're doing it and what the relative costs and benefits of doing it are." That said, he conceded there were going to be disagreements with the industry on "how that calculus comes out."

Lazarus thanked Assey and other association reps at the panel for engaging in productive discussions and "trying to get this right."

Lazarus said the FCC has taken "real concrete steps" to lower regulatory burdens for industry, including eliminating 20 data collections that he said were relics of the past. He said the FCC was also open to further suggestions. He said the commission was engaged in a retrospective review of FCC regs to look for ones that may be outdated, including some "easy pickings" examples of regs for telegraph services. He said he welcomes ideas on those as well.

"When it comes to reg reform, we're open for business," he said.

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