FCC chairman: Agency must change to confront realities of technology

CHICAGO'The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission hinted that the regulatory agency might have to reorganize to better address the rapidly evolving technological landscape.

"At some point we are going to have to take that on," Commissioner Kevin J. Martin said during a question-and-answer session at the SuperComm trade show.

The silo approach ' in which separate agency bureaus address separate communications mediums ' no longer is adequate to address the needs of industries in which lines are becoming increasingly blurred. The FCC currently has bureaus for wireless telecommunications, wireline competition and media, which includes separate divisions for audio and video. But each of these areas is facing new competition from companies in other areas as technology allows voice, video and data to be moved over cable, fiber-optic or wireless links.

Martin remarked on the changes in the industry visible on the SuperComm show floor. In the past, the trade show focused on back-office equipment and services, he said. "Today, the floor looks a lot more like the Consumer Electronics Show," which is focused on services and equipment for the end user.

The current regulatory structure does not match the industry and should be changed. "That is part of what we should be doing," Martin said.

A step in that direction was demonstrated in the decision-making process for the FCC's recent proposed order that would require voice over IP service providers to include Enhanced 911 service in their offerings. That process included public hearings before the commissioners as well as written filings.

The e-911 ruling would require VOIP providers to offer the service within 120 days of its adoption. Because VOIP does not use traditional phone networks and phones are not associated with a fixed address, VOIP service often does not include the emergency access. The decision was a controversial one in the industry, which sees 911 as a social responsibility rather than a technical issue for FCC regulation.

But Martin defended the agency's decision. "These things transcend the technology debates," he said. "It was creating a life-threatening condition for consumers."

Martin reaffirmed his commitment to broadband deployment, a goal of the Bush administration, which has challenged the industry to provide universal access by 2007.

"I think it is vital to establish a regulatory environment conducive to that," the chairman said. Asked if he though the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 should be rewritten, he said, "it is really up to Congress to decide when they think it is time for additional legislation."

But in the meantime, as the technology outstrips the 1996 act, Martin said the FCC would try to provide the regulatory flexibility through its rulings to accommodate new conditions. That will mean a trend toward less regulation rather than more, he added.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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