The Principle of Technology Neutrality in Telecommunications Regulations Must Be Restored to Meet Global Connectivity Goals
Despite the clear benefits that have come from adoption of a technology-neutral regulatory regime, many regulators, including the FCC, are moving away from this principle with results that could be catastrophic to meeting the goal of global connectivity.
November 9, 2016
A basic premise of government regulation in the post-liberalization telecommunications world has been that regulations and government benefits should be technology neutral. This has resulted in a number of benefits for consumers, including the deployment of high quality, innovative, cost-effective telecommunications services and increased connectivity even in the most rural and remote portions of the globe. There are many examples where technology neutrality has led to greater innovation and public benefits. For example, in the mid-2000s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted location accuracy requirements for mobile 911. The FCC adopted broad requirements on accuracy, but refrained from adopting what technology a service provider had to use to meet those requirements (e.g., GPS, triangulation capabilities). In the more than 10 years since adoption of this framework, by allowing the marketplace to govern, today location accuracy services are widely available for emergency calling but also for a number of other uses that are important to consumers lives.
Unfortunately, despite the clear benefits that have come from adoption of a technology-neutral regulatory regime, many regulators, including the FCC, are moving away from this principle with results that could be catastrophic to meeting the goal of global connectivity. This can best be seen by exploring two critical areas: universal service funding and spectrum sharing, where many regulators, including the FCC, are adopting regulatory frameworks that favor terrestrial technologies over satellite.
Universal Service Funding: During the 20th century, the goal of universal service was focused on getting voice communications to as many households as possible. Because telecommunications networks were initially built out using terrestrial wireline technologies, a significant amount of USF has gone to terrestrial wireline networks. Today, as universal service policies are broadening to include broadband services, there is a need to revisit those policies to also include satellite and other technologies in these funding policies. However, many governments, including the FCC, have been hesitant to adopt a technology-neutral approach despite clear evidence that other technologies, such as terrestrial wireless and satellite, will enable access to broadband to all consumers, including those in the most rural locations, on the most cost-effective basis. This bias exists simply because of the historical reliance on wireline and the political realities of any long-term funding program. Accordingly, many governments are putting in place requirements for USF funding that bar spectrum-based technologies from participating on a competitive basis for these funds. The result of this policy means that technologies that may be better suited for certain uses, such as providing service in remote areas at lower cost, have no or limited ability to participate. The net result is that the public cost to achieve connectivity may become economically unsustainable.
Spectrum Sharing: One of the biggest challenges in ensuring that global connectivity goals are met is finding ways to enable more efficient use of the spectrum resource. Throughout history, there have been many examples where spectrum sharing has resulted in more efficient use and has been accomplished in a way that benefits the services subject sharing. Accordingly, it is not surprising that governments are actively considering ways to increase the efficiency of the spectrum resource. However, many of the spectrum-sharing regimes being considered today are being done in a way that advantages terrestrial mobile technologies over other wireless technologies, such as satellite. In many of these cases, governments are adopting policies that provide mobile services with the greatest use of the spectrum resource, while relegating other technologies, such as satellite, to use of the spectrum in limited areas that curtail their operations. The rationale is that there is an increasing demand for mobile services. While this is true, however, by adopting such an approach, governments are creating an anti-competitive framework in order to benefit a single technology. Instead, governments should be looking for solutions that enable the greatest use of the spectrum by multiple technologies and allow the market to determine winners and losers.
It is important for governments to return to following the principle of technology neutrality in adopting regulations in the areas of universal service, spectrum sharing and others. If governments want to ensure that there are sufficient resources, whether money or spectrum, to meet their connectivity goals such policies must treat all technologies on a level footing. Luckily, this backlash has only recently occurred and we are early in our efforts to meet important broadband connectivity goals. Governments should now return to adopting regulations that are technology neutral. The FCC has this opportunity as it considers its final rules for its Connect America Fund II and its next phase of its Spectrum Frontiers proceeding. By adhering to the principle of technology neutral, governments will enable the provision of the most innovative, high quality, cost-effective broadband services for consumers, wherever they are located. VS