This fall, Congress faces an expiration of income tax cuts, automatic across-the-board budget cuts and another round in the debt ceiling fight. But, for now, the U.S. faces a seasonal quiet in the nation's capital. Call it the lull before the storm or lameness ahead of the upcoming "lame duck" session of Congress. Routine bureaucratic business continues, but the political class defers sensitive decisions until after the elections in November.
My telecom-analyst colleague Robert Kaminski tells me a larger inflection point is at hand, as well, in the telecom and tech policy world. He believes congressional inaction is just fine since most of the important telecom laws have already been written, culminating in the spectrum legislation signed by President Obama this February. Meanwhile, the aspiration to amend the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the 21st century is only a twinkle in the think-tank analyst's eye.
Yes, online privacy and cybersecurity are important, and are perennial topics of countless bills, hearings and sound bites. But we view those stories as being less about technology and more about standards-setting, information sharing and best practices.
The telecom and media industries are undergoing changes in the marketplace that Congress had not anticipated, and to which Congress may not equipped to respond. There was a recent series of fact-finding congressional hearings on industry developments in regulated sectors across the media space, and they reflect just how out of date the legal framework is. A congressional staff briefing memo for a hearing on the video market describes the Telecommunications Act as "woefully out of step with the state of competition and technology."
Congressional negligence may be a good thing for the time being. We see the policy forecast for telecommunications, media and technology (TMT) consisting of regulatory agencies, and of the courts cleaning up the mess from previous congressional interference.
On the horizon, meanwhile, are clashes over regulatory review of mergers and acquisitions. After the breakup of the Bell system and further telecom deregulation in the 1990s, consolidation is back on the radar as increasing mobile data usage and smartphone penetration drives scale in telecom services.
The Federal Communications Commission also faces existential questions. With more telecommunications falling outside its regulatory purview, company disputes will be resolved privately with the assistance of the courts.
Internet-protocol-based fiber networks are replacing the copper lines that make up the regulated legacy public-switched telephone network (PTSN), thus nullifying thousands of pages of legacy FCC regulation. For one, the FCC is busy reconfiguring an $8 billion rural telecom subsidy program to officially recognize modern modes of communication and encourage IP-to-IP communication.
As online video replaces linear cable programming, what exactly is a multi-video-programming distributor for purposes of regulation? Cable companies and broadcasters alike bemoan the regulatory regimes around broadcast retransmission consent, program access and video carriage in general.
But an urge to "update" legislation or regulation to reflect technological developments is perhaps indicative of a larger problem of prescriptive, technology-based policy that is perpetually obsolete. How else can the "deregulatory" 1996 Telecommunications Act have been widely characterized as out-of-date nearly from the moment it was signed into law? Initiatives to repeal entire statutes governing activities in the telecom and media industries have been dismissed in the past. But, as more energy is spent on fitting new technologies into old regulatory frameworks, but we believe legitimate deregulatory approaches might receive more serious consideration.