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Monday, October 21, 2013

Updating the Statutory Framework for Communications for the Digital Age: Issues for Congress

Charles B
Goldfarb, Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

The statutory framework for the communications sector largely was enacted prior to the commercial development and deployment of digital technology, Internet Protocol (IP), broadband networks, and online voice, data, and video services. These new technologies have driven changes in market structure throughout the communications sector. Technological spillovers have allowed for the convergence of previously service-specific networks, creating new competitive entry opportunities. But they also have created certain incentives for market consolidation. Firms also have used new technologies to attempt to “invent around” statutory obligations or prohibitions, such as retransmission consent and copyright requirements. In addition, firms have developed new technologies that are attractive to consumers because they allow them to avoid paying for programming or allow them to skip the commercials that accompany video programming, but present a challenge to the traditional business model.

The expert agencies charged with implementing the relevant statutes—the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Copyright Office—have had to determine if and how to apply the law to technologies and circumstances that were not considered when the statutes were developed. Frequently, this has led parties unhappy with those interpretations to file court suits, which has delayed rule implementation and increased market uncertainty. The courts, too, have had to reach decisions with limited guidance from the statutes.

Members on both sides of the aisle as well as industry stakeholders have suggested that many existing provisions in the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, and in the Copyright Act of 1976, as amended, need to be updated to address current technological and market circumstances, though there is no consensus about the changes needed. Three broad, interrelated policy issues are likely to be prominent in any policy debate over how to update the statutory framework:

  • how to accommodate technological change that already has taken place and, more dynamically, how to make the framework flexible enough to accommodate future technological change; 
  • given that underlying scale economies allow for only a very small number of efficient facilities-based network competitors, how to give those few network providers the incentive to invest and innovate while also constraining their ability to impede downstream competition from independent service providers that must use their networks; and 
  • given that spectrum is an essential communications input, how to implement a framework that fosters efficient spectrum use and management. .
Date of Report: September 30, 2013
Number of Pages: 52
Order Number: R43248
Price: $29.95

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