Gigi Sohn Talks Telecom at Harvard

“Bits” @ Harvard, May 2nd 2005
Speaker: Gigi Sohn

The Telecommunications Act of 2006:
What’s at Stake?

PK focused on rebalancing IP, also taking on telecom issues – convergence of copyright issues and communications policy issues

Telecom act was revised in 1996
    First major revision since 1934

Why, nine years later, are we here again?
    Technology has changed enormously

Key issues, then and now:
    Then: Opening up local phone competition –
interconnection (with competitors); unbundling; making long distance
    Now:    Elimination or deregulation
of local phone competition regulations – phone companies don’t like
those regulations. Did get some competition; Bells have challenged
every scheme in court.
    Now: Non-discriminatory access to broadband networks
(“Net neutrality”). Where this issue becomes salient is when video
comes into play, because cable providers will want to discriminate.
    Then: Convergence – RBOCs that wanted to get into
long distance; telcos wanted to get into cable (must make 1/3 available
to non-affiliated programmers); cable into telco; power cos into both
    Now: Convergence – telco into cable; regulatory
parity – why should these seemingly similar services be treated
differently? why should DSL be treated as common carrier but cable
modem service don’t? Why treat VoIP different than regular telephony?
    Then: Universal service – plain old telephone service (POTS) only
    Now: Universal service – time for broadband? (ed: or do away with it entirely?)
    Then: Digital TV transition – spectrum allocation for having analog and digital during transition period
    Now: Spectrum allocation reform (broader) – wireless
providers want a piece of spectrum and want government to be smarter
about allocation and to allow sharing of spectrum.
    Then: Deregulation of media ownership/license renewal – dramatic change in caps
    Now: Reregulation of media ownership. Gigi’s own
take: agrees about need for diversity, but uncomfortable with media
ownership cap as method – rather use tools like spectrum allocation,
    Then: Content Regulation – CDA; V-Chip (mandating
equipment manufacturers implement parental control screening)
    Now: Content regulation – indency for cable too?
    Then: Broadband – broad statement about promotion of broadband
    Now: Broadband – municipal systems building their
own systems; companies getting bills passed that ban municipalities
getting involved, even though in many cases municipalities are trying
to provide where commercial companies won’t – argument to be made on
their side that shouldn’t have to be competing against subsidies and
consumers shouldn’t have to pay the bill in this way.
    Now (ed: not sure where this fits): Copy Protection – follow-up to broadcast flag case?

The Players Then and Now:
    Then: Policymakers – Congress, commerce and
judiciary committees; FCC.  RBOCs. Long Distance Cos.
Broadcasters. Cable and Satellite Providers. Public.
    Now: Policymakers – Congress; FCC; Copyright Office.
RBOC (ILECs) – wireless telcos. CLECs – long distance and others.
Broadcasters. Cable and Satellite Providers (mostly don’t want to be
bothered; cable doesn’t want net neutrality). IP Applications Providers
– VoIP, Software Cos (VoIP worried about regulation). Internet Content
Providers – Amazon, Yahoo (they want net neutrality – IF they don’t own
the pipe. Equipment/Chip Manufacturers. State and Local Regulators.

PK Principles for the Next Telecom Act
    Open Competition Among Broadband Providers, including municipalities
    Open to all attached equipment
    Open network for all applications and content (net neutrality)
    Open spectrum for commercial and non-commercial uses
    Open to all users at affordable prices (universal service)
    Open use of content (copy protection should not be mandated, burdening technology)

How does PK try to work to effect change?
    Build coalitions with companies that are on your
side (the Googles, the CE companies, MS – some close in the copyright
space but not he telecom space: Verizon)
    Grassroots support – working with other public
interest groups; action center; letter writing campaign to companies
    Enormous amount of press work and marketing – change public debate in media

Q: Where is PK on software reform?
A: Draft bill floating around right now, not involving software
patents; doing so is probably not possible, but maybe a trade-off re:
copyrights and patents possible. PK is focusing on the small guys in
patent fight – patent trolls go after the small guys first – patent
quality is a key issue.

Q: Explain more about media ownership caps as a poor means to diversity issues
A: Extremely difficult to take away what people already own – hard to
harden caps. So practically difficult. Nothing wrong with stopping
where we are right now, though. But ultimate answer is technology – if
we free up more spectrum, we strengthen broadband access, anyone can be
come broadcaster. In short term, not going to match power of the Rupert
Murdochs, but freeing up more capacity can crease access to and
production of content – blogs, podcasts – there are more voices. Focus
should be on making new voices more equal with old voices – should deal
with exclusivity of allocating the pipe and spectrum. Problem is
spectrum allocation and exclusivity. Low power radio movement got
killed by broadcasters. We should instead try to maximize efficiency
and use of spectrum. Also: Clear Channels are scrambling – more and
more, market is turning away from terrestrial radio.

Q: DO Republicans or Democrats support you?
A: Copyright space: Republicans more on our side – not messing with
tech innovation, letting market works, don’t like helping hollywood.
Hiring Dan Glickman, a Dem, didn’t make them any happier.
Telecom side is more of a mixed bag – going back to PK principles
above, some are regulatory, some are deregulatory.  First two
appeal to both; third is going to take some regulation; fourth, both
feel beholden to broadcasters; fifth, depends on the politicians’
municipality; sixth, copyright issues.

Q: Where does PK get its funding?
A: We’re now starting a membership drive. I want to bring balance to
more like 1/3 funded by corporations, 1/3 by foundations, 1/3 by
individuals (and rich people). Corporate funding can be more steady;
foundations can be fickle. I’d be lying if I said that corporate
allegiances didn’t affect me and the positions I take most
actively.  Still, doesn’t change our policy positions – we still
will go to them and work with them on those issues to move them closer
to our view.  This is something I worry about.
Foundation grants are also very long processes; corporations demand a
lot less. Corporations can buy into you in a good way; good thing for
people on capital hill to see corporate support. Have to make sure that
we have broad, diverse support, otherwise we look beholden.

Q: What advice do you have for college graduates working with these telecom companies?
A: These aren’t bad companies. Sometimes their policies are stupid;
sometimes their policies are nearsighted.  Bell companies people
that were born and raised there, and all they know is regulated
monopoly – have to change that mindset.

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