Telecom 2020: A Vision for the Future

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“Any Content, Every Device, All Networks”

Imagine that you wake up tomorrow and want to watch your favorite TV show. The program will not play. You don’t have the specified device that the content owner now requires this program to be played on. It is only available on a particular device per an exclusive agreement between the content owner and the device manufacturer. Not only is your device prohibiting your viewing, but you also have the “wrong” video provider. The TV program you want to watch is owned by a video provider you don’t wish to use, but the show you want to watch can now only be seen on the video system that owns the program. Bad things can happen if content, devices, and networks are all controlled by the same party.

Scenarios like the nightmare described above is what Home Telecom is constantly fighting to avoid. As an industry leader, we keep our finger on the heartbeat of events that would directly impact our customers. Rules and laws impacting how we communicate are constantly changing. In addition, it seems mega mergers are announced several times a year; the big just keep getting bigger. Home Telecom is constantly monitoring the communication environment, working with our lawmakers and regulators to make sure that any changes in communications laws and regulations are for the better, not the worse.

Landscape of the Present

As we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, we face fundamental change in not only how we communicate, but how communication is defined. The internet is rapidly replacing traditional communication mechanisms. Today, print media, radio communications, video entertainment, and even personal communications depend on the internet. As we begin the transition to the “internet of things”, information is constantly, effortlessly, and seamlessly exchanged between people and the objects around us to the point that even what it means to communicate will change. By the year 2020, many experts expect that we will measure connected devices by the tens of billions.

Given our present dependence and our future reliance on internet connectivity, it seems prudent to step back and consider the environment that will be required to ensure networks exist that will meet our future communication needs. The maxim holds, if we do not plan to succeed, we are planning to fail. What should our future network look like and what rules, laws, and regulations will enable its existence and (as importantly) which ones could hamper its arrival?

There has been much activity at the Federal Communications Commission in Washington DC addressing this future. In many cases, our judicial system has been asked to review FCC actions. Prompted by this activity, there has been much debate within both the legislative and executive branches of government regarding what the role of government in this realm is. What privileges should businesses enjoy? What rights should everyday people retain? Our journey into the future, as with any successful journey, requires two critical data points: where we are starting from, and what our destination is.

In our democratic society, perhaps the best place to start is the laws that presently govern our nation. The existing laws governing our communications mechanisms date back to 1996. In 1996, our cellular networks were still young and internet was in its infancy. It is amazing that the 1996 Act was drafted with enough foresight to make it relevant in 2016. Yet, given the fundamental change in communications, it should be clear that a detailed review of the 1996 Act is warranted.

In 1996, the emphasis was on allowing competition for “last mile” connections (the physical cable that connects a customer to his selected service provider), while preserving universal connectivity. What the act failed to do in the way of competition, technology accomplished. Cellular service became ubiquitous and through broadband, Cable TV service began offering competition for voice telephone service. During this time, universal connectivity evolved from a simple telephone voice connection to a broadband network. As a society, we have had difficulty even defining what universal broadband is, as speeds and throughput (usage) have continued to grow rapidly. Universal broadband connectivity remains unfulfilled.

A Vision for the Future

So what are the great questions and issues that the current legislative law of the land does not address? The issues we are facing define where we begin our journey, which is why it is so important that we get them right. The answers to these questions will lead to our destination. What do we want our communications infrastructure to be and what role (if any) should our government play?

Start with a vision: what is the best possible view of the future of communications? I would propose the perfect scenario would be one where every citizen has access to an affordable broadband connection that offers unlimited speeds and throughput. It would be a future where any device, manufactured to technical standards, would be able to utilize the ubiquitous network and receive content or applications off the network. Finally, it would be one that allows any content, software, or application to traverse the broadband network and be received by every device connected to the network. In other words: any content to every device through all networks.

This vision is perhaps a utopian dream, but think of the innovative power such a dream would unleash. Think of the social benefits of all citizens being connected in a ubiquitous manner. This dream envisions a future of robust competition as every device manufacturer is free to make the best device possible and not have its product blocked because the network owner will not allow it to be connected to their network. Nor would a content provider be able to block its content from appearing on the device. It would also ensure that any innovative content provider could produce content with knowledge that it will not be blocked by the network or the device manufacturer. Finally, neither content providers nor device manufacturers could discriminate against network providers. The device would connect to all standard networks and the content would be distributable over all networks. Each segment of the communication chain would be totally free to set prices and innovate as they desire, but they would not be able to discriminate against any other communication segment. Best of all, the consumer could freely choose between device, content, and network providers without having any one segment of the communication market dictating their choice in the other segments.

However, without action, it is both possible and likely that large players will attempt to gain control of content, device, and network. Such horizontal integration could allow the owner of must-have content to block new content development of a competitor by blocking the competitors’ access to devices or networks. Likewise, an inferior network could block a competitor’s network from entry by not allowing competing networks access to content or devices.

To Regulate or Not To Regulate?

What changes to our current legislature mandates are required to ensure the dream of any content being available on every device over all networks to become reality? Perhaps, a fundamental question is whether or not we need any laws to enable this future?

The pressure created by the “internet of things” will likely fully expose the deficiencies of the current statute. We see many signs even today. We have devices that only work on certain networks, the ubiquitous cell phone is the perfect example, but most video set top boxes are also network limited. We have constant battles between content providers and video networks where the consumer is held hostage. We see continued vertical and horizontal consolidation, where big players get bigger and exercise market power over networks, content, and devices, potentially blocking out innovative new players. We see major geographical portions of our nation where true high-speed broadband is currently not available. We face the threat that smaller network providers will be squeezed out by large network providers refusing economic viable interconnection. We face daily security threats to our private information and the operations of our networks. Clearly, there are obstacles to our perfect vision of the future, but is government regulation the answer, or the problem?

An overly regulated, bureaucratic government can clearly be a hindrance to an innovative future; however, left to their own devices, corporate entities will simply continue to expand and acquire other providers with the purpose of maximizing profits and control of the market. In the end, we are left with a choice between the rule of law, or the rule of the big stick. The job of any new legislation should be to carefully parse the issues and craft laws that will enable the vision by protecting against undue market power but not hinder the vision with unnecessary regulatory burdens.

With all of the above in mind, what are the major components necessary in future legislation? The legislation should have as a major goal the realization of the vision described. This will empower the consumer and unleash the creatively of the business sector. The legislation must balance the needs for innovation while protecting the consumer, as well as balance the field between the network provider, the content provider, and the device manufacturer.

Blueprints Toward The Vision

While no article of this limited nature could ever hope to completely lay out a legislative agenda, there are several areas that must be addressed.

  1. We must maintain an arm’s-length relationship between content, devices, and networks. This would not necessarily prohibit horizontal consolidation but should ensure non-discriminatory equal access to each component.
  2. We must ensure that all networks remain interconnected and that smaller networks have economical access to larger networks.
  3. We must establish the technical standards that allow for the ubiquitous interconnection of content and devices through a network.
  4. We need to ensure our networks and devices are secure from cyber threats.
  5. We must define broadband to be the almost unlimited bandwidth provided by fiber. Setting tomorrow’s standards for broadband on anything less than today’s capabilities simply does not make sense.
  6. We should ensure all geographical areas of our nation have access to affordable, true high-speed broadband. We simply cannot allow our vibrant rural areas to be consigned to a third-world communication standard.
  7. We need to ensure that even our economically disadvantaged citizens have affordable access to our ubiquitous communication network.

The above list is certainly not exclusive. There are likely many other critical needs that currently escape this author. Rather, it is my hope that this list can help start the needed national discussion. Our democracy is dependent on a ubiquitous communication system. Our constitution recognized this fundamental requirement through the inclusion of the postal code. Our economic future depends on the ubiquitous availability of the internet of things, which will eventually redefine what communication means and will re-create everything from healthcare and education to transportation and commerce.

The stakes are high. Congress is already working on possible legislation centering on these topics, and our President-elect is developing his plans. Our courts have continually intervened in recent Federal Communication Commission decisions in an attempt to interpret outdated laws against rapidly evolving technology. We need a 2020 national telecommunication vision, because if we cannot clearly see our future, we cannot hope to achieve it. In other words, the blurry vision of today must give way to 2020 vision for our future. A future where every citizen has affordable access to a communication system where any content is available to every device over all networks.