New Technologies Challenge FCC to Evolve

Chairman Kevin Martin's foiled attempt to regulate cable may signal an inability for the FCC to exert influence over new technologies that will eventually become more dominant than broadcast media. The FCC will have to change to remain relevant.

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The Federal Communications Commission was created more than 70 years ago to regulate radio, and it later dealt with television. It's critics says it hasn't adapted well to the age of iPods and YouTube. Some members of Congress and former commissioners have suggested restructuring the agency or combining it with the Federal Trade Commission.

NPR's Neda Ulaby has the last report in our series on the challenges facing the FCC.

NEDA ULABY: Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he helped create FCC in 1934 could have never, in his wildest (unintelligible) dreams, imagine one day steps from the Capitol a big telecommunications lobbying firm would set up a wicked Xbox gaming room connected by a cable broadband to players all over the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)

KYLE MCSLARROW: That's the world (unintelligible), and in that world, there's less reason to have agency like the FCC micromanaging the marketplace.

ULABY: Kyle McSlarrow has got reason to about the federal communications commission. Steps from the game room, he runs the nation's largest cable lobbying which has battled the FCC over issues for years. About 30 million households here in the U.S. get their Internet services through cable. McSlarrow says the FCC could begin by rethinking its approach to broadband.

MCSLARROW: Just think about what it was like when we were teenagers or kids, right? We have three channels on TV, we had no Internet, and we had to go to one place to get our phone service. Now, you can get hundreds of high definition, let alone analog, channels and you have an Internet that exploded.

ULABY: Critics say that FCC basically treats the Internet as if it was a kind of cable service and wireless spectrum as if it was just for cell phones.

Newton Minow is a former FCC chair. More than 40 years ago, he famously advised Americans to watch, to really watch, TV.

NEWTON MINOW: I can assure you that you will observer is a vast wasteland.

ULABY: Today, Minow says the vastness of the media landscape has overwhelmed an already froth agency.

MINOW: The FCC, under the law, is designed to both promote communications companies and at the same time regulate them. So there's an ambivalence in what the FCC is supposed to do.

ULABY: The commission's biggest challenge, says Professor Yochai Benkler, is to think completely differently about a media environment in which televisions, computers, and telephones are increasingly morphing into each other. Benkler co-directs Harvard's University's Center for Internet and Society.

YOCHAI BENKLER: That's what's necessary, the fundamental re-conceptualization to an agency that's intended to assure access, open, neutral to everyone.

ULABY: Benkler says the government is no longer serving passive couch potatoes but users actively exchanging information. And he says, they need service providers who do not manipulate or block how they do that. This is idea of network neutrality.

Gigi Sohn of the nonprofit group Public Knowledge says to ensure it, the FCC needs to regulate.

GIGI SOHN: Cable companies and telephone companies control 96 percent of the residential broadband internet lines in this country, that requires some regulation to ensure that they don't use that bottleneck power, that gatekeeper power, to discriminate against applications, services, and content in which they don't have a financial interest.

ULABY: Communicating with complete freedom of expression should be a top FCC priority, says Reed Hundt, he was the commission's chair under president Clinton.

REED HUNDT: If it's pornographic, if you're trying to commit an act of terrorism, that's different. But if you wanted to send a message about freedom of choice for women, Verizon has the power to block it. They did, last year.

ULABY: Verizon initially declined to let the group NARAL Pro-Choice America send text messages to supporters. But it reversed its decision after public outcry last fall. It's not unusual for companies to interfere with our communications for reasons ranging from flat-out censorship to managing the traffic on their networks. Last month, Comcast was caught blocking a popular file-sharing service that millions of people use to legally exchange large files - PDFs or music - and not-so-legally-shared popular current movies like "Jumper."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "JUMPER")

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible). We'll open the scene.

Unidentified Man #2: We're screwed.

ULABY: The FCC held a public hearing two weeks ago about net neutrality that was largely about Comcast's, well, lack of neutrality, at least in this case. Reed Hundt says going forward, the FCC needs to ensure Americans can communicate in the most modern and effective manner.

HUNDT: Every other country in the world is committed to open networks and competition and has an active broadband strategy. The United States has fallen behind in broadband, in wireless innovation, in the Internet writ large.

ULABY: People who advocate for open networks say, we'll get more competition if more companies get to sue the pipes. That's how it works in most other developed countries that have switch from state-owned monopolies to privatization.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING)

ULABY: In a Berlin cafe, a group of teenage French tourists call their parents back home without the trouble of having to switch SIM cards or lock their cell phones. Moncest Denaime(ph) uses his to effortlessly send a friend across the table his favorite song.

MONCEST DENAMIE: I think the use of the mobile phone is very easy and it's very fast.

ULABY: It's faster and you're up cheaper and there are more options. That angers activists like Gigi Sohn. She was pleased when the House of Representatives launched an investigation into the FCC earlier this year.

SOHN: The fact that Congress wants to look at what are the problems with the agency's structure, what are the problems with the way the agency does business is frankly a relief, and is long, long overdue.

ULABY: But other critics say an agency that controls everything from how emergency responders communicate to which (bleep) words we can say on the airwaves is already too politicized, and may need to look elsewhere for models that can remove it from the oversight of Congress and a White House that appoints its commissioners.

The next round starts in November.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Washington.

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