To network the nation, go back to the future

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Today, the development of the Internet has brought us to another critical juncture in communications policy as we consider how to complete the transition from the bygone era of plain old telephone service to the digital bonanza of the 21st century. It’s a critical transition, given the Internet’s increasingly dominant role in every part of our economy, as well as its ability to improve lives and help achieve important national goals. It’s also something that just about every stakeholder, including the Federal Communications Commission, regards as inevitable. As we move forward, the guiding principle must be to put consumers first.
 
When complete, this Internet transformation will mean that every telecom service will move over the fastest, most reliable broadband networks built specifically for Internet-based delivery of voice, video and data rather than antiquated networks that were designed for phones wired to the wall.  Every app, every smartphone and tablet, every desktop computer will smoothly connect consumers to the online experience of their choice – telemedicine services for better health, virtual classrooms for lifetime learning, their legislators’ offices for civic engagement, a job opportunity, a sporting event, a movie, friends and family across town or on the other side of the world.  That’s the first goal – delivering the services consumers want. Indeed, that move is already under way led by consumers themselves, about three quarters of whom have left the old wired phone network for services provided with digital tools.
 
Ideally every consumer – in the rural communities of Southwestern Virginia, the mountains of Colorado, and the poorest neighborhoods of the inner city – should have access to this advanced network. The principle of universal service, which ensured basic telephone service for every American, may be even more important in the Internet age. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel explained:  “No matter who you are or where you live, prosperity in the 21st Century will require access to broadband services.”
 
But providing access to the service isn’t the whole job. We also must boost adoption rates, educating every American about what the transition means, how it will affect them and why they should use broadband to improve opportunities for themselves and their family. We can’t afford to leave any American in the dark about the value of broadband; we can’t leave anyone behind.
 
A competitive marketplace that enables consumers to choose among different providers, technologies and service options is another core goal, because competition provides consumers a better deal. That principle guided our work on the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In today's context, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has it exactly right: “We must also ensure that competitive alternatives are available to consumers and that all providers continue to invest and innovate – pushing one another to offer consumers the best services at the lowest prices.” Competition thrives where a level playing field exists and consumers understand the rules of the road. Basic consumer protections are vital to guard against deceptive and abusive practices.
 
The Internet has prospered in large part because of decisions dating to the Clinton administration to steer clear of excessive rules about matters such as terms of service and pricing. While the tradition of light touch regulation of the online space should continue, regulators must remain on guard against potential abuse and make sure that consumers receive the services they’re paying for.
 
Protecting public safety also remains a vital goal. Next generation networks must be reliable so that consumers can communicate in times of greatest need. Disruption of 911 in Hurricane Sandy made clear that we have work to do to achieve this goal. Ensuring access to first responders on new networks is one reason that I support proposals like one by AT&T for field tests. Market trials of IP technology will enable carriers to identify potential problems and find solutions before the final transition from the old networks to the new. Every American must have the means to reach 911 in times of emergency in this digital era.
 
Finally, there is the matter of outdated regulation, specifically legacy rules adopted decades ago for the old phone system. Without prejudging specifically what rules should go and what rules should stay, our nation’s regulatory system must be just as modern as the networks it governs. Over the past decade, regulators have correctly recognized that new technologies require new rules. As outgoing FCC Chair Julius Genachowski observed last December in creating the Commission’s technology transition task force, “[T]he ongoing changes in our nation’s communications networks require a hard look at many rules that were written for a different technological and market landscape.” A national dialogue moderated through an FCC proceeding should summon a broad range of stakeholders from consumer groups to broadband providers to focus on the rules that are appropriate for a time when all communications are Internet-based.
 
To be clear, modernizing regulations for the transition does not mean a regulation-free zone. What’s needed is smart regulation appropriate to protect consumers and public safety, promote competition and support universal service, while also encouraging significant and sustained private investment in America’s next-generation communications networks. Again to quote Commissioner Rosenworcel, “Our policies in these transitional times must do two simple things. They must promote confidence for private investment in digital age infrastructure – and they must promote confidence for consumers to realize the full potential and opportunity that our digital world provides.”
 
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
 
Boucher served for 28 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, chaired the subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and is the honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA). He chairs the government strategies practice at the law firm Sidley Austin, which represents communications companies among other clients.

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