I have been reading – and rereading – a rather fascinating document.
It is a report from a regulator: and what is particularly fascinating – and refreshingly welcome - about this report is its clarity, its readability and above all its honesty; for the most part, it is closely and coherently argued; it acknowledges critical viewpoints, and seeks to address those criticisms on a point by point basis; it acknowledges the fact that the market whose perceived weaknesses it is seeking to address is a market that is constantly evolving, and that the framework that it is proposing must be flexible to adapt to the changes that may come – indeed, that framework is one which hopes to encourage that change. It is, in short, a good read, and I would invite the authors to blow the froth of my pint pot any time they’re passing.
And, just to repeat, in case you’d missed that bit or simply refused to believe it, it is a report from a regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) no less: a Report and Order on Preserving the Need for an Open Internet
The essence of the report – published last December – is encapsulated neatly in section 43 of the document:
“To preserve the Internet’s openness and broadband providers’ ability to manage and expand their networks, we adopt high-level rules embodying four core principles: Transparency, no blocking, no unreasonable discrimination, and reasonable network management. These rules are generally consistent with, and should not require significant changes to, broadband providers’ current practices, and are also consistent with the common understanding of broadband Internet access service as a service that enables one to go where one wants on the Internet and communicate with anyone else online.”
Essentially, the report – which covers both fixed and mobile broadband services - argues that the current regulation on openness is insufficient, both from a consumer perspective (it failed to protect them against abuses from ISPs) and from that of application providers which might find their products unlawfully blocked. Critics of the Order have claimed that it goes beyond the remit of the FCC and represents an attempt to overregulate and constrain the market: indeed, there have been concerted efforts over the past few weeks in the US Senate to overturn the measures.
But I would argue that in this instance, the regulation in question represents a genuine, viable attempt to produce a fair, relatively light touch framework without greatly overburdening the industry, and at the same time providing greater opportunities to new entrants in both the fixed and mobile spaces.
And here’s why.
I have two sons and two step-daughters, aged 8,7,6 and 5. On a weekend, they are usually up and about before the master and mistress of the house: they have not, so far as I aware, killed one another during this time. This is because of what I am know going to call Max’s Question (Max being the elder son in this set up) and it goes thus: “What would Daddy or Tracy say?” In short, for that period of the morning before the adults are up and about, the children self-regulate: they watch TV, play games and – sometimes for as much as five minutes at a time – do not exceed one million decibels. Because if they did so, the self-regulation would be replaced by a period of regulatory intervention resulting in one or more of them sitting on the naughty step.
Note: it is the threat of regulatory intervention that maintains an equilibrium, and this is true in most industries as well as in households at 7.30am on a Saturday morning. And yet, as any parent will tell you, Max’s Question will only deter them for so long, before you have to intervene to stop the living room going all Lord of the Flies.
Now, this is not to say that the telecoms industry is wholly analogous to a bunch of free range adolescent schoolboys, or that if you left mobile network operators alone for five minutes three or four of the bully boys would butcher the other short, fat one: what I will say is that in some circumstances the industry cannot be relied upon to police itself and in doing so be wholly fair to its disparate parts, let alone the consumers which it serves. This being the case – especially so in an industry evolving as fast as telecommunications – a light-touch regulatory framework is a sensible policy; one that will ultimately be beneficial to all concerned.