Thursday, November 16, 2006

Argumentation by Adjective

A group of self-described consumer groups has submitted a letter to the FCC opposing a delay in the July 2007 scheduled implementation date of the set-top box integration ban. I disagree. I've explained in an essay on CNET and in a longer paper why the implementation date should be deferred, so I won't repeat those arguments here. I will just emphasize, as I did in my papers, that this is a case in which the FCC's authority to grant common sense regulatory relief is very clear. While the self-identified consumer groups refer to the provision in the 1996 Act requiring the FCC to adopt set-top box regulations, they fail to mention that in the very same provision Congress gave the FCC authority to waive or even sunset whatever regulations it adopted. This is rare in the Communications Act and, indeed, in most statutes delegating authority to administrative agencies. I think that even the Congress that included the set-top provision thought that technology and marketplace developments might well outrun any regulatory mandates the FCC might devise. With downloadable security and the DTV transition on the horizon, it would be unwise for this Commission to enforce a regulatory mandate whose near-term costs to consumers outweigh any benefits. This Commission should have a market-oriented majority sympathetic to avoiding unnecessary regulatory mandates,

What really struck me about the group letter, though, is that it is replete with argumentation by adjective. The groups go on about the "the onerous costs of the cable monopoly"; the "excessive monthly rental costs for cable distributor boxes"; "the costly programming packages offered by cable". There's more of this adjectival arguefying, including the usual: "consumers are already suffering from exorbitant cable price hikes."

Yes, it would be nice if multi-hundred channel cable service, with all the new on-demand programming and other digital service features, was less costly. But by what measure do the consumer groups charge that the price of the service is "onerous", "costly", or "excessive". I confess I would be pleased if the price of telephone service, cable service, the Washington Post and Communications Daily, and most certainly Consumer Reports was less rather than more. But, of course, I might not have them at all if they were forced to be priced at some less "onerous", less "costly", or less "excessive" price that I or the authors of the consumer letter prefer. I would prefer that the marketplace rahter than the consumer groups or the government establish the "right" price. In the same vein, I would prefer that policy not be based on overheated rhetoric about "costly" services.

Finally, don't get me wrong: I want to see still more competition in the video marketplace from the "telephone" companies and others. It's coming, and consumers will benefit from that. But the competitive landscape of the broadband marketplace already is such that a forward-looking, market-oriented FCC should be initiating a proceeding to sunset the set-top rules, not just waive them.