WASHINGTON, February 18, 2009 - The day after the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners approved a resolution calling for reform of the Federal Communications commission, a panel of former agency staffers, commissioners and state regulators debate Wednesday over what areas truly needed reform and how to achieve it.
State telecommunications commissions and the FCC has done a yeoman's job of "thinking outside the box" and opening themselves to outside input, said Thomas Navin, a Wiley Rein attorney and former chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau.
Navin was pleased with the FCC's use of field hearings for collecting evidence - as it did during last year's investigation of Comcast's network management practices. The hearings let the commission publicize the issue and obtain a diverse range of views, he said.
Navin praised the series of hearings the agency held in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and said they enjoyed a similar success. While field hearings provide an opportunity for commissioners to interact with "the folks," Navin said he wants more: "I think they could do those [types of] hearings here in Washington, on the record" he said.
Telecommunications policy-making as a federal-state partnership inherently "a bit messy," Navin said. But he noted good ideas implemented at the state level often filter up to the FCC. And though calls for reform tend to happen at the outset of every new administration, Navin predicted that the effects of the unprecedented economic stimulus and bailouts would have lasting effects that would "define the direction that the FCC and federal government will take over the next 50 years."
The digital age means the FCC needs to adapt and reorganize, said Free State Foundation president Randolph May. May said he wanted Congress to pass a new Telecommunications Act that would make the FCC more concerned with unfair competition than protecting the public interest.
Getting rid of the “public interest” standard would "cultivate predictability" and mandate decision-making based on facts, May said. Regulations to prevent unfair competition would require more economic and analytical rigor than exists currently.
The FCC needs to reorganize its bureaus, May added. He specifically called for the creation of a Broadband Bureau and Content Bureau to replace the current Wireless, Wireline and Media bureaus. Eliminating the FCC's current "stovepipes" would make it more responsive to the demands of convergent technologies, he said.
But Vermont Public Services Board member John Burke said the current system works, and can be made better by "making sure the rules of the road are out there and easy to understand." Most problems with the FCC can be solved by "keeping the cameras rolling," or by holding more hearings and having more public votes, he said. Further, the commission should hire more experts to keep institutional knowledge current, he said.
Burke said states need to help reduce the FCC's caseload by increasing their involvement with various joint boards of federal and state government. And the commission should allow items to be placed on its agenda by a majority vote of the commissioners instead of by waiting for the chairman to schedule votes. Burke said that change was "essential... to adequately address issues... expeditiously."
More effective use of commission institutions – its people and its process – would lead to a better product, said Wilkinson Barker Knauer attorney Bryan Tramont. Tramont served as FCC chief of staff under former chairman Michael Powell.
The commission needs to have a better idea of its goals, he said. Those at the top need to define "measures of success...and hold managers accountable," he suggested. And commissioners can the web as a powerful mechanism to overhaul the notice and comment process, and let the FCC listen to its "customers," he said.
But Tramont warned against sweeping reforms when the FCC "does a good job." Most matters are resolved without controversy, and 90 percent of votes are unanimous. "The solutions may be worse than the problems," he said.
Problem solving may be best left to the states, said former Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate. State commissioners "are going to become more integral" as technology moves forward, she said. And despite criticisms, Tate said the FCC is still the "gold standard" worldwide, and that states should embrace the chance to come to the federal agency with solutions.
An agency overhaul isn't necessary, Tate said. "Reform has already occurred."