AS CHIEF COUNSEL AND LEGISLATIVE director for Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in the mid-90s, I and my colleagues on the Hill worked tirelessly negotiating and drafting key provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that would spur competition and innovation. Congress laid the groundwork for the FCC to implement pro-competitive and pro-consumer policies. Pioneering upstarts were able to bring exciting new technologies to the communications industry, consumers benefited from a rich marketplace of innovative services, and Internet use exploded and became an indispensable part of our daily lives.
The technological world we all know today never would have materialized without rules from the 1996 act that ensured competitive carriers access to incumbent carriers facilities. But now, thanks to an FCC that refuses to protect consumers and preserve competition, our nation is reversing course and heading in a direction that will enable the Bells to remonopolize the communications industry.
It was just more than a year ago that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCCs decision to classify Internet access over cable as entirely an information service, rather than as an information service offered over a telecommunications service. After the courts decision, in what the FCC described as an effort to level the playing field for incumbent carriers, the FCC adopted an order that also classified broadband Internet access service offered by facilities-based telephone companies as a single information service, rather than as a bundled offering of an information service and a telecommunications service. This decision overturned 25 years of prior practice and resulted in competitors losing nondiscriminatory access to the transmission capacity used to provide information services.
It was a huge victory for the Bell and cable companies and a devastating blow to competition. And yet, the FCC wasnt done kowtowing to monopolistic interests.
In March, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin abused his authority by preventing the commission from taking action to reject a forbearance petition from Verizon Communications Inc. that sought relief from all common carrier obligations otherwise applicable to its broadband services. Not surprisingly, AT&T Inc. and BellSouth Corp. have quickly followed suit with me too petitions that seek similar relief from Title II common carrier and Computer Inquiry rules with respect to their broadband services.
Common carrier regulation is what created competition and enabled technology to flourish. The Internet we know today, for example, would not exist without the basic common carrier safeguards of nondiscrimination, interconnection, service upon reasonable request and no unreasonable restrictions on the use of purchased services. Without these safeguards to ensure competition, the incumbent telephone and cable operators both of which were given decades in a monopoly environment to build their respective networks and gain customers will be able to refuse interconnection and resale (as cable operators have always done) and use discriminatory pricing and unreasonable contracts (as the Bells increasingly are doing) to prevent competition.
To make matters worse, Congress seriously is considering legislation that would lock in the FCCs misguided policies. You might ask yourself why Congress would do that if they support competition. Well, part of the answer is Bell company lobbying, and another part is the competitive industrys own rhetoric. Slogans like Dont regulate the Internet and Promote Facilities-Based Competition have been turned against us; they essentially have become paid advertising for the other side. Think about it which part of the Internet has always been regulated? The transmission network part. All facilities-based carriers, and in particular, the Bells, have been required to offer the transmission component of any information service on a standalone basis to any competitor. Which facilities-based competitors actually have facilities that reach all the way to most end users? The incumbent telephone and cable companies do. As a result, the Bell and cable companies have used our own messaging to help convince Congress no rules are needed.
SO WHAT CAN COMPETITORS DO?
First and foremost, competitors need to start convincing Congress and the FCC that they provide a valuable service and that the economy and the marketplace depend on our continued presence. We need to use our salespeople and customers to help make that point. Second, we need to start talking about the importance of rules that allow the competitive marketplace to flourish. The Bells always talk about a level playing field yet they want to play the game without any rules or referee. What game do we play in America that has no ref and no rules? There is none so we need to talk about a set of rules that apply equally to all competitors namely rules that require interconnection, nondiscrimination, service upon reasonable request, and prohibit unreasonable restrictions on resale or control over the content or service transmitted. Third, competitors need to unify and focus their efforts, which is something that COMPTEL can help all competitors do.
For 25 years, COMPTEL has advocated competitive policies at the federal and state level.
COMPTEL has been leading the fight against approval of the SBC/AT&T and Verizon/MCI merger consent decrees since last February. In May, we were granted leave to participate as amicus curiae in the proceeding and assist the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in its public interest determination. We have successfully delayed approval of the merger pacts and are hopeful that our efforts will help to hinder the approval of the proposed AT&T/BellSouth merger.
COMPTEL also has challenged in federal court the FCCs Wireline Broadband and Verizon Forbearance orders. A successful legal challenge of either of these two orders will be a serious setback for the FCC and the Bells. In addition, COMPTEL already is working on challenges to the latest round of forebearance petitions filed by the Bell companies.
Our advocacy efforts before Congress are stronger than ever. We helped establish a diverse coalition of companies and associations to preserve net neutrality the Internet communitys preferred term for basic common carrier safeguards that includes Google, Amazon.com Inc., Yahoo! Inc., eBay Inc., Microsoft Corp., the Christian Coalition of America and MoveOn.org, to name a few. As a result of the coalitions efforts, net neutrality has become a key issue in the Senate debate over passage of legislation favored by the Bell companies, and it is unlikely that legislation will pass without resolution of that issue.
COMPTEL will continue to push for net neutrality principles that address the rights of content and service providers, including key common carrier principles like nondiscrimination, interconnection and service upon reasonable request, in any legislation on communications reform Congress may consider. It is important for competitors to join in the advocacy of net neutrality/common carrier rules.
The competitive industry has been the entrepreneurial force behind the technological innovation that has benefited consumers and our nations economy. We will continue to be a driving force behind the future of communications but we need lawmakers to reinstate the basic common carrier rules that made competition possible. Lets level the playing field by re-establishing the rules and re-instating the ref. The future of our industry depends on it.
Earl Comstock is president and CEO of COMPTEL, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing competitive facilities-based telecom service providers, emerging VoIP providers, integrated communications companies and their supplier partners.
|Amazon.com Inc. www.amazon.com
AT&T Inc. www.att.com
BellSouth Corp. www.bellsouth.com
Christian Coalition of America www.cc.org
eBay Inc. www.ebay.com
Federal Communications Commission www.fcc.gov
Microsoft Corp. www.microsoft.com
Sprint Nextel Corp. www.sprint.com
Verizon Communications Inc. www.verizon.com
Yahoo! Inc. www.yahoo.com