Reading Holman Jenkins' column, "Here Comes Your 19th Telecom Meltdown," [subscription required]in today's WSJ, reminded me of some comments that I filed with the FCC back in March 2000, with Jeff Eisenach, my then-colleague and always good friend. In his column, Jenkins bemoans--rightly in my view--the regulatory hoops, especially at the state and local level, that now confront the telephone companies as they prepare to enter the video delivery business in competition with the cable and satellite companies. Because the new video services largely will be delivered over high-capacity fiber lines using the Internet Protocol (IP), these services often are called "IPTV" or Internet Television.
So, back to the year 2000 FCC comments. In an inquiry that the FCC opened to wxplore what public interest obligations should be imposed on new digital television licensees, Jeff and I said:
The phenomenon of convergence has also rendered obsolete a regime in which differential content regulation is applied based on the technology used to deliver the content. In the age of streaming video and audio on the Internet and other digital technologies, it is rapidly becoming meaningless to differentiate the "programming" that we receive based on what name we give the deviceâ€”whether a "computer" or "television"-- we use to view the content. One only needs to read the section of the Commissionâ€™s most recent Video Programming Report entitled "Internet video," with its description of Broadcast.com, TV on the Web, and others, to grasp the convergence point. Although some may advocate such an approach, it is almost inconceivable that the Commission would consider imposing on "Internet video" and other new technologies, whether wireless or not, the same type of public interest programming requirements that it proposes to continue for broadcasters.
Internet video, indeed, and we wrote that in 2000. You can read the entire version here.
The principal focus of the FCC comments was to urge the adoption of a new First Amendment paradigm for the digitial age that would eliminate for all video providers the traditional "public interest" content regulation. Underlying the comments was the fundamental notion that it was unwise, impractical, and perhaps unconstitutional to impose differential treatment on purveyors of video information based on whether the programs are delivered over "broadcast", "cable", "satellite", or "Internet" technologies, or whether viewers watched the programming over something we happen to call a "computer screen" or a "television" or, as my mother used to say, "a noise box".
I understand that the issue in the FCC inquiry had mostly to do with federal content regulation and that Jenkins writes today mostly about the potentially adverse impact of state and local regulations on the roll-out of video services by companies he calls "the two Bells". But the two Bells cannot fairly be called "telcos" any more than the cable operators, with their welcome and encouragingly successful push to provide voice and Internet services, can any longer fairly be called "cable television" companies.
In the interest of retaining our world leadership in technology, isn't it time for our policymakers to find a way to put in place policies that will leave the service labeling to the marketers, and move the competition off the regulatory fields and into the marketplace?