Q&A: FCC’s Baker Sounds Alarm Over 'Anecdote’-Based Regulations


Meredith Attwell Baker, the newest Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, says that the state of video competition varies, but suggests there is no shortage of it. She also says that regulation in response to “anecdotes” is akin to navigating “dangerous waters.”

In Attwell Baker’s view, an essential component of the FCC’s national broadband plan will be “creating a regulatory environment that is favorable to capital investment in all types of broadband networks.” Economic incentives for faster speeds are part of that, she said. As former acting head of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration — the FCC for government-controlled spectrum — Baker has definite opinions about access to spectrum for wireless broadband: More is needed, and it will have to come from both commercial and government sources.

She weighed in on those and other issues in responses to e-mail questions from Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton.

MCN: What concerns do you have generally with codifying and expanding the FCC’s existing openness guidelines?

Meredith Attwell Baker: As policymakers, we all have an interest in ensuring an open Internet and the free flow of lawful content over the Internet. At the same time, I am concerned about any regulatory action that could lead to unintended harmful consequences, both here and abroad.

It’s not clear to me that we have evidence of a problem to be addressed by the proposed [network] neutrality rules. If the commission imposes unwarranted regulatory burdens on broadband Internet-access service providers, no matter how well-intentioned, it could have the unintended consequences of harming consumers by reducing broadband investment and deployment, decreasing innovation and restricting consumer choice.

Government should always proceed with caution so as to ensure the best outcome for consumers. Having said that, I support asking questions and gathering information to examine network-management practices, and to build a robust, data-based record on the business and engineering issues to determine if there is any basis for concern.

MCN: How would you assess the current state of competitiveness of the video marketplace?

MAB: Based upon our most recent Video Competition Report, which was released last January, the answer to your question is that the level of competition varies from place to place.

Almost all consumers have a choice between over-the-air broadcast service, cable service and at least two direct-broadcast satellite providers. In some areas, consumers may also have access to video programming delivered by emerging technologies, such as fiber-to-the-home. With last year’s transition of full-power television stations to digital-only operation, many stations are now offering additional multicast channels of programming, adding to consumer choice. In addition, viewing patterns are changing in that there is more and more video being made available online.

Video is also being provided on advanced wireless devices and broadcasters have developed a technical standard by which they can air their programming to such devices that was approved by the Advanced Television Systems Committee on Oct. 15, 2009.

The commission has issued a supplemental notice of inquiry and received comments for its next Video Competition Report, and is currently analyzing the record. I look forward to working with the staff on its findings.

MCN: What concerns, if any, do you have about the national broadband plan’s potential effect on incumbent cable and network operators?

MAB: It is critical that the commission deliver a plan that sets the appropriate regulatory environment for private-sector investment in broadband networks to achieve the goals of deployment to all Americans, particularly the unserved, and to create incentives for continued innovation so that consumers benefit from increased choice, competitive prices and improving quality of service.

Where competition thrives, consumers can best decide what services and pricing structures fit them best. But where there is no competition, the commission will need to ensure that broadband gets to everyone and no one is left behind.

Some estimates of the price tag for achieving the plan’s goal of universal broadband access are as high as $350 billion. Government can’t do that alone. Thus, creating a regulatory environment that is favorable to capital investment in all types of broadband networks will be essential.

MCN: What should the national broadband plan include?

MAB: The National Broadband Plan that Congress has charged the commission to complete by February of next year is an important and strategic opportunity to ensure that the proper environment exists so that broadband can continue to flourish. Hopefully, this plan will include economic incentives to build out infrastructure faster at higher speeds so that all Americans have the opportunity to reap the benefits of the Internet. I hope the results of the plan will set a regulatory climate that rewards innovation, stimulates investment and encourages competition. A spectrum policy that unleashes the value of the public airwaves is critical, as is effective and efficient management of programs such as universal service.

MCN: As acting head of NTIA, you dealt with government spectrum issues. What are your thoughts about where to get new wireless spectrum for broadband?

MAB: I think we need to work on spectrum issues in three ways, more or less simultaneously.

First, we have to promote innovation in wireless technologies. We have to make sure that we are using the best radio, antenna and other technologies possible to make the most of the spectrum we have. We also have to redouble our efforts to use spectrum efficiently. This means ensuring that applications and downloads are appropriately adapted for the mobile environment and mobile devices and finding new ways to use unlicensed spectrum to relieve capacity constraints. And third, I think that we do need to find more spectrum. I do think we need to be looking at both commercial and government allocations when we do this. We are really facing a spectrum crisis and we need to approach this issue differently than we have in the past.

MCN: The FCC is about to launch an inquiry into kids TV rules. What do you think that should focus on?

MAB: As the mother of four step-daughters, I can tell you from personal experience that the job of parenting in this era of exploding video technologies is more difficult than ever. While the proliferation of content over hundreds of channels, on-demand services and the Internet presents real opportunities and a variety of positive customized choices, the portability of the Internet and wireless devices that can be used far from the eyes of concerned parents makes things even more difficult.

We need to work with industry and all other interested parties to develop parental tools that work across all platforms, and to provide parents with content information so that they can decide what programming is appropriate for their children. In the wake of our August 2009 Report to Congress called for by the Child Safe Viewing Act, the commission will shortly issue a Notice of Inquiry to obtain certain information missing from that record. I urge your readers to file comments and work with us on this important effort.

MCN: What question should we have asked you, or that you would have liked us to ask you, and what would your answer be?

MAB: I think that your readers might be interested to know my general regulatory philosophy. I start with the fundamental belief than consumers will benefit most from continued investment, innovation and competition. I believe that markets work better than government intervention and that competition regulates market behavior more efficiently that regulators can. When we adopt regulations to address anecdotes where there is no hard evidence that a problem exists, we get into dangerous waters. In other words, we shouldn’t try to solve a problem unless we know that one exists.