Thursday, January 31, 2013

An Experiment Is Worth a Thousand Pleadings

As regular readers of this space know, I consider Blair Levin a good friend, and a longstanding one at that. Aside from our friendship, I recognize and respect the considerable contributions that he has made and continues to make in the communications policy arena.
Here I will only mention, most recently, Blair's leadership of the team that put together the FCC's voluminous National Broadband Plan (regardless of whether you agree with all its recommendations, and I don't, preparing the plan was a huge undertaking), and his efforts with regard to the ambitious (and, in my view, significant) GigU project.
Despite our friendship, Blair and I certainly don't always agree, especially with regard to assessing the competitiveness of communications markets and weighing the costs and benefits of regulation. Simply put, at least as I see it, I have a more deregulatory perspective in light of my assessment of the increasing competitiveness of most communications market segments and the costs and unintended consequences of regulations.
All this is a prelude to saying that I was pleased to read about Blair's remarks yesterday at a "Georgetown on the Hill" forum regarding AT&T's IP-Transition petition. AT&T has asked the FCC to allow it to conduct some trials regarding the ongoing transition to all-IP services and the retirement of the legacy time-division multiplexed (TDM) facilities. Communications Daily [subscription required] reports in today's edition that, at the Georgetown forum, Blair stated: "If a picture is worth a thousand words, an experiment is worth a thousand pleadings." He declared the requested trials are unlikely to cause any harm. And he added, "the sooner they start that experimentation, the sooner the FCC will have real data" so that the telephone companies will no longer be required to invest "in an infrastructure we know will be stranded."
In its piece on the forum, TR Daily [subscription required] reports Blair said: "We are losing investment, we are losing jobs by not making those investments."
With regard to AT&T's petition, I have to say Blair and I are in "wild" agreement, and I commend him for the points he made. In comments that my colleague Seth Cooper and I filed with the FCC on Monday, we supported AT&T's request, and we urged the agency to act promptly.
Here is a brief excerpt from our summary:
"In recent years, the market for voice services has undergone dynamic change. This includes the emergence of cross-platform competition in local and long distance services as well as the employment of IP- and broadband-enabled technologies. Trends over the last several years reveal an ongoing migration of providers and consumers from legacy TDM networks to all-IP networks. For consumers, and for the nation as a whole, to realize the full benefit of these innovative and competitive breakthroughs, the Commission must replace its legacy monopoly approach to ensuring access to voice services with a much less regulatory approach. Otherwise, the service providers necessarily will have fewer funds available to invest in new broadband facilities as they continue to sink scarce capital into legacy facilities utilized by a dwindling number of customers."
As I see it, this ought not be a left-right issue, or a pro-regulation or anti-regulation issue. It ought to be a matter of the FCC facilitating, in a way that best serves consumers, the completion of the transition from analog to broadband networks that began in earnest more than a decade ago. If the telephone companies are not allowed to retire legacy facilities in a timely manner, but instead are required to continue expending funds operating and maintaining them, then they will, as we said in our comments, and as Blair's remarks suggest, lose investment opportunities to build out new broadband Internet infrastructure.
A final note: As I think more about this, it occurs to me that perhaps there are other subject areas, with their own particular sets of legacy regulatory requirements, where the Commission usefully might employ trials or experiments to determine whether outdated regulations can be eliminated, or at least relaxed, while at the same time protecting consumers. In proper circumstances, conducting such trials might be one way the agency can help reinvent itself as an institution more attuned to the fast-changing marketplace realities of the digital age. Or put another way, to quote a friend, in proper circumstances, "an experiment is worth a thousand pleadings."
I suspect that Blair might be of the same mind with regard to thinking about other areas where trials might be a means towards implementing further reforms. But, in any event, I'm heartened he added his voice to those urging the FCC to move forward to facilitate completion of the transition to all IP broadband networks.