FCC's Martin Preaches Competition
As part of Tuesday afternoon's keynote session, Martin discussed the state of U.S. telecom in an interview conducted by Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) president Matthew Flanigan, taking no questions from the audience.
Appointed an FCC commissioner by President George W. Bush in 2001, Martin was named chairman in March 2005. Several controversial issues have arisen during his tenure, most of them surrounding the issue of broadband access, giving Martin a big enough role in telecom's future to rank him No. 3 on Light Reading's Top Ten Movers & Shakers in Telecom. (See Kevin Martin, Chairman, FCC.)
Martin said his FCC philosophy centers on the creation of a "regulatory environment that fosters people to take the chance to go out and make that investment" in new networks. He's seen as having positions friendly to the incumbent telcos, and his answers yesterday did nothing to challenge that reputation.
Martin believes, for example, that the FCC aided the cause of broadband deployment when it decided to not require line sharing on the telcos' new fiber optic buildouts.
"Several people objected to that and said it was going to lead to higher broadband prices," he said -- noting that his predecessor, Michael Powell, was among the naysayers. "We've seen just the opposite happen. Broadband prices have gone down because the real competition is between DSL and cable services."
What haven't gone down are cable TV prices. Elsewhere in the discussion, Martin noted an 80 percent increase in the price of cable since the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Some portion of that is probably due to the increase in services available -- digital cable wasn't an option in 1996, for instance. Still, Martin claimed cable prices reflect what might happen in broadband without the FCC's touch. "In almost every area the commission regulates, competition has brought lower prices."
He noted the FCC might have a role to play in the area of video franchising, where the telcos are hoping to streamline the process of getting permission to provide TV services. (See FCC Brings Video Debate to Texas.)
Several times, Martin referred to the need to provide 911 services and access for the disabled. That's the kind of rhetoric one would expect from any FCC chairman, but in addition to citing the social obligation to provide such services, he noted a pragmatic political reason. "I fear that if we don't address those underlying public safety needs, we'll actually undermine the support" for deregulation in other areas, Martin said. In other words, decisions such as the classification of broadband services as data, rather than telecom, could get challenged more strongly if the public is irked over issues like E911. (See Time's Up for VOIP E911 Compliance.)
The talk touched only briefly on network neutrality -- the question of whether carriers should be allowed to discriminate between different traffic types on their networks. Martin said carriers should have a right to offer varying levels of service. He considers it premature for the FCC to set any rules related to this area yet, although he said the agency would jump in should one provider start outright blocking access for certain users or services.
So far, he doesn't think that's likely. "We're not seeing widespread examples of abuse in the marketplace," he said. (See Whitacre, Martin Line Up on Neutrality.)
Flanigan gave Martin a chance to indirectly welcome commissioner Robert McDowell, appointed May 26. McDowell's presence is important, as he removes the chance for 2-2 tie votes, Martin said. But he also applauded his fellow commissioners for not letting themselves get deadlocked as a four-member agency. "I've been very appreciative of how my current colleagues, before Rob got here, were able to reach consensus on a whole lot of contentious issues."
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading