By Paul Barbagallo
Congress is likely to make small tweaks to the Communications Act, despite
calls for a major rewrite of the statute, Richard Wiley, chairman of Wiley Rein
LLP, said Feb. 19.
The last revision to the Communications Act, in 1996, took Congress nearly
ten years to complete, and was itself the first major update to the law since
1934, Wiley noted during an event hosted by the Hudson Institute, a conservative
policy and research group in Washington.
“I would like to see a big new statute,” Wiley said. “I think that would make
sense for the country. But I'm not sure how soon that would happen.”
Wiley said he foresees a series of smaller bills emerging from the
congressional committees of jurisdiction, given the increasing number of
interests involved--ranging from the cable and telecommunications industries to
Silicon Valley high-tech firms to TV broadcasters.
When Congress passed that 1996 statute, Wiley pointed out, the internet was
still in its infancy.
“The timing just wasn't right,” he said.
The 333-page Communications Act, as amended by the Telecommunications Act of
1996, mentions the word “broadband” three times, and the word “internet” only 10
times. The 128-page Telecom Act of 1996 mentions “broadband” in only one
Currently, the Federal Communications Commission regulates telecommunications
providers under Title II of the Communications Act, wireless carriers under
Title III of the act, and cable operators under Title VI, even though the
distinctions among these companies have blurred as telecom providers now offer
video service, cable operators now offer voice service, and wireless carriers
offer both voice and data service. The FCC treats broadcasters as public
trustees, and some telecom providers as “common carriers.”
“It doesn't make sense anymore,” said Wiley, who served as chairman of the
FCC from 1970 to 1977 and has since represented a diverse cross-section of the
communications sector, including Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc.
“Telephone and cable companies. are competing directly, which wasn't foreseen in
the 1996 Act.”
Wiley said the FCC can take action on its own to alter the “siloed”
regulatory structure. He did not indicate what specific actions the commission
could take, but suggested that the agency's “forbearance” authority--to forbear
from applying regulation--could be exerted to a greater extent.
“We just have to go, in my view, toward lesser regulation,” Wiley said.
“That's the only way it works. Yes, we have to protect public safety; we have to
make sure the disadvantaged are protected. But I think the forces of competition
are going to provide a better answer…”
In November, 2012, AT&T filed a petition with the agency to establish
so-called test zones where regulations left over from the original 1934
Communications Act should no longer apply.
The United States Telecom Association, an industry trade group that counts
AT&T as a member, also filed a petition to reclassify all incumbent local
exchange carriers in the country as “non-dominant,” which the group says will
put them on more equal footing with wireless and cable competitors. If the FCC
approves the petition, “dominant” carriers, including AT&T, Verizon,
CenturyLink, and Windstream would be relieved of all currently applicable
regulations for pricing and market entry and exit, as well as the obligation
imposed upon them to file tariffs.
Both petitions are now under consideration at the FCC, and face opposition
from public-interest groups and smaller rivals.