Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Forbearing from Broadband Regulation

I just came across one of those items that reinforces the impression that the FCC needs to move much more quickly -- say, on Internet time -- than it presently does if the nation is to realize the economic and social benefits of the necessary transition from a narrowband to a broadband world. In this instance, I have in mind a December 7 ex parte letter filed by CenturyLink in connection with a forbearance request it submitted almost a year ago. (Portions of the publicly-available letter have been redacted due to competitive considerations.)

CenturyLink seeks relief from "dominant carrier" tariffing and other regulatory requirements developed during the last century's Computer Inquiries (dating from the early 1980s). CenturyLink says it needs relief from the regulatory requirements so it can compete "on a level playing field against larger, established providers of enterprise broadband services, including AT&T, tw telecom and Verizon." Moreover, CenturyLink explains that its enterprise broadband services currently are subject to a disjointed set of regulatory requirements that, in light of past corporate acquisitions, vary depending on the CenturyLink affiliate that provides those services.

As CenturyLink puts it: "This disparate regulation frequently precludes CenturyLink from entering into the streamlined, customized arrangements that purchasers of enterprise broadband services demand in today's highly competitive marketplace." CenturyLink's letter explains in considerable detail why, in a competitive environment in which enterprise broadband customers seek to negotiate individualized specific commercial agreements, continued "dominant carrier" tariffing requirements put it at a competitive disadvantage relative to all of its competitors not subject to those requirements.

I find CenturyLink's case for forbearance relief persuasive, but you can review its ex parte letter and judge for yourself.

I really want to make these broader points which go well beyond CenturyLink's own forbearance petition:

  • The "enterprise broadband" market, which is another way of saying "sophisticated business customers" is sufficiently competitive that none of the marketplace providers should be subject to "dominant carrier" regulation because there are no longer dominant carriers in this market.
  • Broadband services, whether or not denominated "enterprise services," should not be subject to telephone-style narrowband legacy regulations. There should be a "wall of separation" that protects broadband services from such legacy common carrier regulations.
  • There is no reason for the Commission -- just because it can -- to take a year, or even more, to decide forbearance petitions seeking regulatory relief. As then Commissioner Michael Powell put it back in 2000, "[o]ur bureaucratic process is too slow to respond to the challenges of Internet time." A dozen years later it's time for the FCC to act with greater dispatch.
It's not too early for the FCC to begin making some New Year's resolutions for reforming communications policy and the way it does business.