Monday, January 10, 2011

A New Year’s Resolution for the FCC

By Deborah Taylor Tate

With unemployment hovering near 10 percent, mortgage rates climbing, and many Americans still not in recovery from the biggest recession since the Depression, my hopes for the New Year, like those of many fellow Americans, are simple. We need a return to productivity, new job opportunities, and safety and security of home and homeland that will finally lead to new engines of growth.

So what would be my hope for the FCC's 2011 New Year's Resolution?

First, the FCC must return to being an independent agency. Too many FCC Chairmen have been confused about the agency's authority, allegiance or its family tree, creating a dotted line from the Oval Office to the Chairman's office. Before long, however, the new Congress will probably make painfully clear that the agency is a legislative creature and that the FCC should operate independently from the Executive branch.

In fact, the FCC may well want to take a look in the mirror the next time it chastises broadcasters regarding their "public interest obligations." The public, not Pennsylvania Avenue, should be the agency's focus. Such independence often means being unpopular – with the President, with Congress, with industry. That kind of unpopularity, however, often means you are doing your job, as required by law. And as President Truman said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Second, the FCC should provide leadership for economic recovery. Sectors within the FCC's oversight offer some of the best promises for a way out of the recession. And the U.S. has always been the global leader in techno-intellectual property; we invented the Internet and most of the spin-offs. We should not relinquish that global position. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa is promising to provide just that kind of dogged determination by looking at regulations that may be stifling our economy, rather than sustaining it. In fact, the decades old 1996 Telecommunications Act was visionary in actually directing the FCC to forebear from enforcing part of, or all, regulations that are no longer necessary. In this day and age of total platform convergence between voice, video, and data and platform competition from numerous sectors, Section 10 forbearance should be at the top of the FCC's to-do list for 2011, as well as other steps to reignite investment, entrepreneurship, and innovation
Programs such as Lifeline and Linkup, which provide much needed communications services to the truly low-income, based on strict eligibility requirements, should be reenergized and not retrenched. Even with so many Americans unemployed, less than half of those eligible are now taking advantage of this assistance. Rather than reducing access to this critical program providing temporary assistance, companies should be encouraged to expand and experiment in this area. The words "life-line" resonate more today than ever before regarding access to communications, which is now crucial to truly reducing joblessness.

And what about a real good housecleaning from top to bottom of every FCC docket, complaint, and filing that has not been acted upon in – say, five years? When I served at the Tennessee Regulatory Authority we held an open docket every Monday to dismiss hundreds of stagnant, old filings. If FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell is correct that there are a million American consumer complaints regarding broadcasters, the agency should set up a rocket-review, dismiss all those that do not meet review criteria, and refer the rest to a mediator or some other fast-track alternative dispute resolution process.

Third, the FCC needs to make public and personal cyber security a priority. With breaches of private information – including the government's – occurring frequently, over 90% of our children online, and consumers' financial security threatened, just what steps are being taken to insure the safety, integrity, and security of the Internet? What is the agency doing to educate the public regarding cyber security risks? Workshops, hearings and speeches have been held all around the nation to discuss net neutrality – hardly a matter of pressing importance like cyber security. (One was held at a high school in December.) We actually need good network management practices to protect our children online, reduce the multi-billion dollar impact of piracy, and insure the stability of the network for crucial, time-sensitive uses such as telesurgery. While the majority of Americans – and Congress and two FCC Commissioners – were firmly opposed to the FCC's endeavor to regulate the Internet, the agency has spent two years working to do just that.

Finally, just as networks and technologies evolve, so must the agency as well. As competition provides consumer protection regarding choice and pricing, what is the new role of the FCC in a highly competitive, converged world? Will the FCC remain the "gold standard" among "independent regulators" vis-à-vis the communications regulatory authorities in other countries? Or, will it saddle American companies with overly burdensome regulations here, reduce their ability to compete globally, stymie investment and destroy jobs? Will this governmental agency be part of the solution to our national jobs-deficit – or an added burden to our economy?

So, at the FCC I hope the New Year will be one of agency independence, empowerment of both companies and consumers, and concentrated agency action on the safety and security of our homes and our homeland. The agency should follow through on this New Year's Resolution rather than make 2011 yet another year of overreaching and over-regulating.

And, at their first meeting of the New Year, the FCC might follow the lead of the new Congress and read the Constitution aloud. It has relevance to much of the FCC's work too.