McSlarrow: Lighten Up, FCC

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Washington— National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow endorsed a conservative think tank’s proposal that would greatly reduce the Federal Communications Commission’s oversight of all communications companies within a few years.

In a speech last Tuesday, McSlarrow said he agreed with a Progress & Freedom Foundation blueprint that would see all FCC rules go away in five years and the agency relegated to night-watchman status, primarily concerned with consumer protection, in the same manner as the Federal Trade Commission.

DeMINT 'FARSIGHTED’

The PFF is staffed with academics and former federal officials who favor free markets over regulation. McSlarrow noted that PFF’s plan was introduced as legislation (S. 2113) in 2005 by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), though it generated little support.

“DeMint has a good case of farsightedness as well. He needs for more of his congressional colleagues to share his vision,” said telecommunications analyst Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Potomac, Md. May had been at PFF when it assembled its Digital Age Communications Act embraced by DeMint.

A major overhaul of the 2,000-person FCC and telecommunications policy was justified, McSlarrow said, because an intrusive regulatory body wasn’t needed when communications markets are strongly and demonstrably competitive.

“Given this reality, I think it is appropriate to take a fresh look at the regulatory framework that governs communications,” McSlarrow told a Media Institute audience filled with former and current FCC officials at the Hay-Adams Hotel.

The FCC’s portfolio with regard to cable is vast, with the agency having explicit authority over cable’s voice, video and data products. Depending on the ideological makeup of the agency’s five-member leadership, cable can experience either intense scrutiny or light oversight.

McSlarrow threw his support behind a major bureaucratic downgrade for the FCC in terms of its day-to-day oversight of cable, phone, satellite and broadcasting companies. The only area he didn’t explore was the agency’s role in reviewing mergers.

“The FCC would have authority to intervene in the marketplace only if it determines that marketplace competition would not adequately protect consumers against unfair methods of competition or unfair and deceptive practices. There would be a presumption against regulation and, in fact, all FCC regulations would sunset in five years,” McSlarrow said.

NCTA’s support for radical change would take the trade group in a new direction. In July 1994, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) tried to shake up the telecommunications policy establishment by circulating draft legislation that would have repealed the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 and the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992.

For tactical political considerations, the NCTA, then headed by president Decker Anstrom, wouldn’t endorse Dole’s draft bill. At the time, Anstrom was deeply involved lobbying House and Senate Democratic leaders on a sweeping telecom bill that eventually collapsed.

In his remarks, McSlarrow voiced frustration that, after a little more than two years in charge at the NCTA, the FCC never seems to put some issues to rest. Commission chairman Kevin Martin, for example, is continuing to push to force more local-TV-station content onto cable systems despite FCC votes in 2001 and 2005 to reject such ideas.

“Instead of focusing on how to unleash new technologies that would benefit consumers, we find the FCC asking and answering the same questions over and over again, often in cable’s case involving the provisions found in one statute passed in 1992,” McSlarrow said.

CENTRAL DISCONNECT

He sees the central dispute in communications as between those who say competitive markets exist and those who see monopoly power in constant need of government intervention through such remedies as the unbundling of services from facilities that deliver them.

“What do I mean by unbundling? The forced sale, resale, lease, or use of networks or devices attached to those networks. Those who advocate a la carte, must-carry regimes, so-called open or forced network access, or net neutrality fall in the unbundling camp,” McSlarrow said.

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