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Can Incompas Reach Its Lofty Goals?

SAN FRANCISCO -- This week's ComptelPlus show, likely the last with that moniker, marks a major change for the venerable organization, which has its roots in the competitive carrier space and is actually the combination of two organizations originally formed to advocate in Washington for the companies competing with the incumbent Bells.

Comptel is now called Incompas , a new name unveiled with considerable drama on Monday morning. President and CEO Chip Pickering announced the impending change Sunday night but then the organization's staff clamped down on rumors or hints of what the new name might be. The Monday morning keynote was delayed as details of the reveal were finalized, leaving a growing crowd to wait for the doors to open and speculate on what was to come. In a carefully orchestrated process highlighted by a video featuring a range of innovators and leaders that included Abraham Lincoln, Walt Disney, Rosa Parks and Bill Gates, among others, Pickering finally spoke the new moniker as the logo popped up. (See Comptel Tranforms Into Incompas.)

While this was happening, Incompas munchkins were apparently running around the venue, posting large signs, popping on lapel pins and putting floor stickers in place, all bearing the new title and logo. The Marriott Marquis become Incompas-land to reinforce the new title, which was said to represent innovation, competition, and advocacy, among other core values.

Giant Floor Stickers

Incompas would like to be the organization that safeguards Internet freedom and promotes competition and innovation in the networking space, and get credit as such. Pickering touts its newer members, including Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX), Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Twitter Inc. , as well as the association's role in backing the new Open Internet rules and in successfully opposing the Comcast/Time-Warner Cable merger, among other victories.

It's true that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under Tom Wheeler has definitely bent in the direction of competitive forces versus incumbents. Pickering and others take every opportunity to lavish praise on Wheeler, in particular, for living up to the promises he made to the organization a year earlier, in a keynote speech, to do everything he could to promote competition. (See Wheeler: FCC Will Protect Competition in All-IP Era.)

The real proof of Incompas's stature is yet to come, however, as the current FCC enters its final year and tackles an issue almost as tricky as net neutrality in determining how things such as carrier interconnection will happen in the all-IP world, and how incumbents might be allowed to retire aging copper lines without cutting off competitive access to local loops.

The Open Internet decision, including the surprising move to re-regulate broadband under Title II rules, came about largely because there was a groundswell of public opinion behind the "Free the Internet" movement. There isn't likely to be such a vociferous public call for IP transition rules because their arcane nature makes it much less likely that the general public will be engaged.

Wheeler's top advisor, longtime consumer advocate Gigi Sohn, urged Incompas CEOs to "tell your story" and try to frame it as a consumer and small business story as well, to build support of the type that got the Obama White House on board the Open Internet train earlier in the year. But I'm having a hard time picturing how that will work. (See FCC's Sohn: We're Still Fighting for Competition.)

It seems much more likely that the remaining efforts of the Wheeler FCC to back competition will be done in the more traditional ways, through lots of lobbying and haggling and, hopefully, meaningful compromise.

And that is where Pickering and Incompas have an opportunity to earn their leadership stripes among both old and new members. The next competitive landscape is being shaped and will have considerable impact on future business services, in particular, and on the options for choice that remain and develop. If that work is completed under Wheeler's watch, it stands to benefit the competitors Incompas represents, but if it drags on into an unknown future, the outcome becomes much less certain. So the aim of the newly renamed group appears very clear -- make this happen soon.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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