Ex-FCC commissioner laments decline of competition

The United States communications infrastructure has been "short-changed" by "30-plus years of misguided public policy," former Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps said on Monday.

Copps, who was reminiscing on his decade at the FCC, said he came to the commission in 2001 "expecting to help shepherd start-up and struggling phone companies ... to competitive viability."


While addressing attendees at the Freedom to Connect conference, Copps spoke of processing many petitions from long-distance carriers looking to enter local markets “based on the premise and the promise that letting the big guys into long-distance would be accompanied by opening local markets to competition," Copps said.

"In the end there were some competitive successes, but not enough to justify the claim that there was anything approaching real industry competition," he said.

"Competition was under attack — no great surprise — from the big phone companies and — to me a bigger surprise — from an industry-compliant FCC that was more interested in blessing consolidation than it was in invigorating competition."

But while some might want to give up trying to "realize the competitive goals of the [Telecommunications Act of 1996]," Copps was defiant about the possibility for competition in the telecom sector.

"I am here to say that the commission still has the obligation to promote competition — and that we have, in fact, numerous opportunities to give innovators and competitors a fair shot to challenge incumbents for the benefit of consumers," he said.

Copps, who was the lone vote against the merger between Comcast and NBC-Universal, said antitrust enforcement is "always critical to competition," but it "hasn't been the strong suit of many recent administrations."

Nevertheless, the action taken by the FCC and the Department of Justice to block the purchase of T-Mobile by AT&T means the agencies are "[showing] life where some had thought the oxygen was long gone," he said.

The proposed deal between Verizon and a consortium of the largest cable companies means to Copps that "another is sent into the coal mine to see if the oxygen is still there."

"Why this deal should be so much more difficult than ATT/T-Mobile is difficult for me to understand," Copps said.

"No matter what you call it — cabal, cartel, collusion, conspiracy in restraint of trade — I don’t see how anyone can claim that reducing competition in both wireless and wire-line somehow advances the well-being of consumers," he said.

Right now, the balance in favor of the consumer isn't there, Copps said.

"It’s been upended," he said, "first, by the undisciplined power of money in our politics and, secondly, by the inability of the public sector to exercise anything approaching adequate legislative or regulatory oversight."

Copps lamented the rise of a political climate where "stockholders trump stakeholders too much of the time."

"When investments [in infrastructure] are decided on the basis of how the next quarterly report plays on Wall Street rather than how they will benefit the company’s totality of stakeholders, we ask for trouble. And, very often, trouble is what we get," he said.