The FCC’s Plate is Full

FCC_New_LogoI don’t think I can remember a time when the FCC had more major open dockets that could impact small carriers. Let’s look at some of the things that are still hanging open:

Net Neutrality. This is the granddaddy of all FCC dockets, if for no other reason than the number of responses filed in the docket. The network neutrality docket asks the basic question if there is any legal mechanism that the FCC can use to ensure that the Internet remains open. The public debate on the issue has concentrated on discussion of whether there should be Internet fast lanes, meaning that some companies could buy priority access to customers. Of course, the flip side of that question is if most of the Internet can be made slower in favor of a handful of large companies willing to pay a premium price to ISPs to be faster.

The issue has become political and there are polarized positions on opposite sides of the topic. The large players in the industry have also lined up in predictable ways with the giant cable companies and telcos against any form of regulation on broadband and almost everybody else on the opposite side of the fence.

Municipal Broadband. Petitions filed by Chattanooga TN and Wilson NC prompted the FCC to investigate if they should overturn the various state restrictions against broadband. There are roughly twenty states that have some sort of restriction against municipalities either entering the business or for operating as a retail provider of services. In some state there is an outright ban against any form of municipal broadband competition. In others, municipalities can build networks but can only provide wholesale access to the networks.

This issue is a classic case of pitting states’ rights against the ability of the a federal agency to preempt them. The FCC has overturned numerous state laws in the past and certainly has that ability in terms of telecom law. But in most past cases the FCC overturned rules established by state commissions and here they would be overturning laws created by state legislatures. There are a number of states that say they will sue over the issue as well as some members of congress that are vehemently against overturning state laws.

IP Transition. The IP transition can have huge repercussions on LECs and CLECs. At issue is the replacement of the traditional TDM network with an all-IP network. From a technical perspective this transition if very straightforward and the carrier world is already in the process of implementing IP connections in the voice network.

But there is a long list of carrier compensation issues that are tied deeply to TDM network rules that must be dealt with. For example, one the primary principles that help to make CLECs competitive is that they can choose to meet incumbent networks at any technically feasible point of their choice. The RBOCs view the IP transition as a way to change this balance and they want CLECs to pay to bring all voice traffic to them.

And rural consumers have a huge stake in this docket since the large telcos see this as an opportunity to ditch customers on rural copper. AT&T, for example, has made it clear that they would like to cut the copper to millions of rural customers.

Mergers. The FCC is processing two large merges between Comcast and Time Warner and between AT&T and DirecTV. The Comcast merger is the one with the most practical market consequences since it merges the two largest incumbent cable companies. The cable industry already suffers from the lowest customer satisfaction among all industries and the two companies are near the bottom of the pack in the industry.

So customers are worried that the merger will lead to even worse service. And competitors worry that the mega-company that would result from these two mergers will have too much market power. The FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has publically expressed some concern about this merger being good for the industry, so it doesn’t sound like a slam dunk.

Internet TV. The FCC is looking at whether it should regulate Internet TV. For example, should a channel line-up broadcast over the Internet have to follow the same rules as a broadcast over a cable network? This ruling is going to have a huge influence over how small companies deliver cable TV.

Everything Else. In addition to these big issues the FCC has a lot of other open dockets. Some of them are relatively small, such as the docket that looks at whether the FCC should regulate robocalls. But some cover large issues, such as the docket that is examining how the FCC sells wireless spectrum.

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