Verizon VP Silliman Calls For New Telecom Regulatory Framework

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By Paul Barbagallo  


The next regulatory framework for the communications industry should have four objectives--protect consumers, encourage innovation, promote investment, and treat technologies agnostically, said Craig Silliman, senior vice president for public policy and government affairs for Verizon Communications Inc., in a speech at a Media Institute luncheon May 16.

Silliman, echoing remarks made over the last several years by Verizon executives, said communications laws are badly out of date and need updating to account for changes in the marketplace, particularly the rise of mobile devices.

“When Congress wrote the Communications Act of 1934 that created the Federal Communications Commission, Title II, which regulates wireline communications, was essentially imported from the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887,” Silliman said. “The 1996 Telecom Act updated the 1934 Act to reflect the new developments of the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, such as the growth of cable television and the breakup of the old AT&T, but many of the fundamental concepts carried forward, and the law has not been updated since. So this is the DNA of our regulatory framework for communications in the 21st century: railroad regulation in the 1880s.”

Indeed, both the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 were premised on protecting consumers from a government-sanctioned natural monopoly in local phone service.

'96 Categories No Longer Work

The ’96 Act, which itself took nearly ten years to complete, required that the five remaining local Bell telephone companies--Ameritech, Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), BellSouth, SBC, and US West--first convince the Federal Communications Commission that their local phone networks are open to potential competitors before being allowed to offer long-distance service to customers in their regions.

But today, the FCC regulates telecommunications providers like Verizon 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 between these companies have blurred.Ttelecom providers now offer video service, cable operators now offer voice service, and wireless carriers offer both voice and data service.

“The 1996 Telecom Act succeeded in what it was designed to achieve, but almost two decades later it is leaving the FCC struggling to shoehorn Internet-era technologies into phone-era regulations,” 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 mentions “broadband” in only one reference.

“I am not suggesting that the answer is to abolish all regulation,” he said. “But I am suggesting that we need a 21st century policy framework that is designed for 21st century technologies and marketplaces, not 19th century ones.”

No Communications Act Rewrite on Horizon

Silliman's speech was not new messaging for Verizon, but rather served to reinforce the company's position that many of the laws and regulations should either be scrapped altogether or be revised with a “light touch.”

Though the company has been engaged on numerous fronts to deregulate the sector, Silliman said he does not expect Congress to take up a Communications Act rewrite over the next two years.

At the earliest, lawmakers may revisit the 1996 Telecommunications Act in four to seven years, as “tension” between the “regulatory infrastructure” and markets intensifies.