Lawmakers: Convergence could be end of regulation

U.S. representatives took an opportunity during a "show-and-tell" hearing on voice-and-data convergence technologies to suggest that the 1996 Telecommunications Act should be rewritten -- or scrapped altogether.

Six companies, including Time Warner Cable and Qualcomm Inc., demonstrated new and near-future technologies that deliver a combination of voice, data and video during the hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Wednesday's hearing was one among a series as the subcommittee begins to look at ways to rewrite the far-reaching 1996 Telecommunications Act, said subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican.

Cable and Internet providers starting to provide VOIP (voice over IP) service in competition with the incumbent telephone carriers that inherited their networks after the early '80s breakup of AT&T Corp., and Upton questioned what he called "stovepipe" regulation focused only on telecommunications providers. He predicted that Congress would begin to rewrite the '96 Telecom Act next year.

New technologies are blurring the lines between telecommunications services, traditionally regulated, and unregulated Internet services, Upton said. "I, for one, have made no secret of my belief that the ... stovepipe regulations perpetuated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 need to be revisited given the evolution of technology in the marketplace that was virtually unforeseen at the time that the act was written," he said.

Representative Christopher Cox, a California Republican, went a step further and questioned if regulations created by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were needed at all. Cox didn't advocate abolishing the FCC, but he mentioned a 1997 book by lawyer Peter Huber that did suggest the agency was no longer needed.

Wireless, telecom, satellite and Internet companies are starting to compete with each other, and a rewrite of the '96 act may not be necessary, Cox said. "This seems to be the competition we've all sought for a long time, so perhaps we should declare victory," he said. "Possibly what we'll learn today is that retirement (of the law) is a better option."

But other lawmakers seemed to back away from abandoning telecommunications regulations. Parts of the Telecom Act and other legislation paved the way for the current landscape that encourages convergence, said Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. For example, the '96 Telecom Act preempted laws in 26 states that prohibited competitors such as utilities and cable companies from offering telecommunications services, he said.

"The point is that regardless of how ingenious a new, whiz-bang device might be, in our telecommunications marketplace its creators need governmental policies which allow it to reach the market -- otherwise it will remain merely a gleam in the eye of an engineer in a lab," Markey said. "Moreover, the marketplace needs sufficient competition to ensure that participants continue to innovate, that innovators have a sufficient number of companies to whom they can sell their products and services, and that consumers see higher quality offerings and lower prices."

Among the companies demonstrating new technologies at the hearing were Current Communications Group LLC, which is beginning to roll out its broadband over power lines (BPL) service. Ham radio operators have raised concerns about potential interference from BPL, but Jay Birnbaum, vice president and general counsel at Current Communications, touted BPL as a potential broadband option for people living in rural areas. Electricity utilities can also use BPL equipment to test their lines and find outages, he said.

Sprint Corp. demonstrated TV signals sent over video-enabled cell phones. The company's US$10-a-month service, in partnership with Idetic Inc.'s MobiTV service, currently allows subscribers to access 18 channels, said John Burris, director of data product marketing for Sprint. Customers with Sprint phones can also get audio of Major League Baseball games, he said.

Verizon Communications Inc. demonstrated a prototype video phone running the company's Iobi software platform designed for devices that converge data, voice and video. Adriana Rizzo, the company's executive director of eServices, showed how users of the phone could drag and drop names from an address book on the phone into a video conferencing queue. The leader of a video conference can mute a participant or drop them from the call altogether "if they're really annoying," Rizzo said.

Verizon plans to begin selling the videophone by late in the year, although it doesn't yet have a firm price for the phone, she said.

Because of the new technologies that blur the lines between telecommunications and Internet services, a new telecom law would likely be outdated as soon as it goes into effect, said Representative Albert Wynn, a Maryland Democrat. "We're going to have to scramble to keep up," he said.

New telecommunications legislation shouldn't aim to favor some technologies or companies over others, added Representative Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican. He called Wednesday's hearing the "opening act in a very long and complicated play."

"The underlying and most important issue is not who wins and who loses," Bass added. "The winners must be the consumers ... the winners must be the U.S. economy."

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This story, "Lawmakers: Convergence could be end of regulation" was originally published by PCWorld.

  
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