Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Burying an FCC Proceeding Seven Years Later

In early 2001, the FCC initiated a proceeding to examine whether it should adopt new regulations to govern the developing technology of what it called “interactive television” or “ITV”. The notice asked hundreds of questions, including many variations of: what is interactive TV; who should be allowed to provide it; and how should it be regulated? The concern prompting the initiation of the Commission’s “interactive television” proceeding, in large part, was the recently consummated AOL/Time Warner merger. The Commission worried that a cable company, like Time Warner, that vertically integrated with an Internet services provider, like AOL, might discriminate against rival ITV providers. It worried about the potential market dominance of a new service launched by the newly-integrated Time Warner and AOL called “AOLTV” that combined video streams with data services including web content.

Put in the best light, the agency’s notice raised questions concerning the regulatory implications, in the then-emerging digital broadband environment, of the marrying of “video” and “data,” of the “television” and the “computer” screen.

With Jeff Eisenach, I filed comments in response to the FCC notice. Remember this was March 2001. In those comments, we said something worth keeping in mind today:

“In today’s rapidly changing technological marketplace environment, however, even the
launching of regulatory inquiries can do more harm than good. Initiating such inquiries may well affect – even if inadvertently – business and technology decisions as current and potential market participants assume full-battle mode in an effort to “shape the process” early on. The likelihood of the harm outweighing the benefit is more acute when the “constant” and continuous” changes to which the Commission refers make it difficult even to specify a “definition” for the potential object of the Commission’s regulatory concern.”

The comments also urged caution by the Commission in light of the First Amendment implications raised by any regime that regulates content or creates mandatory access rights. The Commission’s notice inquired about both.

Of course, we now know the FCC’s concerns that AOL/Time Warner integration might be anti-competitive were, as they say, grossly exaggerated. Anyone following Time Warner and AOL knows the marketplace, in recent years, has dictated more un-integration than integration of those companies. And, of course, in a broader sense, the market for broadband video, data, and voice services and products, sometimes integrated, sometimes not, becomes ever more competitive.

Now comes word that the FCC yesterday issued an order closing the ITV proceeding. The Commission says, wisely: “In the absence of any clear direction or consensus as to how this market may develop, it would be inappropriate to commence further regulatory action.”

Good for the FCC – even though, as I said seven years ago, the Commission should not have initiated this particular proceeding at a time when even a casual reading of the notice indicated the agency really couldn’t define the object of its concern.

And this caveat as well: The closure of the ITV proceeding is just the termination of one seven-year old docket with a particular docket number. The Commission continues to consider, in one proceeding or another with other docket numbers, imposing various regulatory mandates applicable to broadband providers, including broadband video providers, sometimes under the rubric of “net neutrality,” sometimes “a la carte,” sometimes “open access,” and whatever else have you. Even in terminating the ITV proceeding, the Commission takes pains to remind it is “without prejudice” to further market intervention if conditions warrant. The Commission should cut this sentence from its ITV termination order and post it, in large caps, above the entrance to the Portals through which all FCC regualtors must pass: “In the absence of any clear direction or consensus as to how this market may develop, it would be inappropriate to commence further regulatory action.”

And, finally, this reminder too: This Friday, September 26, FSF is sponsoring a lunch seminar entitled, “Delivering Content in a New Technological Environment: An Exploration of Policy Implications.” The seminar, which will especially focus on the policy implications of the movement to server-based technologies and away from traditional channels, for delivering video content, features Professor Steven Wildman and FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell. Who knows? They may even take a stab at defining interactive television, or explaining the difference in today’s environment between a “television” or “computer” screen. The seminar, including lunch, is free. The details are here.