FCC needs an upgrade

President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to create a Cabinet-level chief technology officer, signaling the priority he places on high-tech issues. But a more important decision may be Obama’s choice to lead the Federal Communications Commission. Although the current chairman, Republican Kevin J. Martin, has made some smart choices, the FCC needs fresh ideas on how to encourage competition and promote broadband Internet access. It also needs to fix nagging problems with its own procedures and stop trying to regulate speech.

Despite Congress’ effort to spur competition in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, consolidation has been the dominant trend in the communications industry ever since. That has been facilitated by the FCC, which counted on phone, cable and wireless players to compete against each other instead of boosting competition within each industry. As a result, consumers have only a handful of choices for phone and TV service. Worse, the weakness of the competition has left U.S. consumers with broadband and wireless services that cost more but deliver less than those in the rest of the developed world. And with Internet and mobile devices playing an increasing role in commerce, education and entertainment, the U.S. can’t afford to have poorer capabilities than its global competitors.

Making more of the spectrum available for new entrants could be part of the solution. Among the most important principles established by Martin is that the public interest isn’t always served by seeking the highest possible fees for its airwaves. The commission sacrificed revenue on several spectrum bands to promote openness and innovation, allowing free public access (on unused TV channels) or requiring winning bidders to permit any compatible device or application to be used with their services. But under Martin, the FCC refused to reserve licenses for new competitors, allowing giant companies to outbid their would-be rivals.

The FCC also showed an alarming willingness to use government power to impose ineffective and discriminatory decency rules on broadcasters in the name of shielding children from profane or violent programming. More relevant to a bygone era’s media environment, such rules reflect how poorly the commissioners seem to understand today’s technological realities. Obama should strive for a technologically savvier FCC, which would be better equipped to regulate how broadcasters, phone and cable companies influence the flow of information and communications. Finally, he also should place a priority on opening the FCC itself. Under Martin, the commission was often slow and riven by internal battles. It needs to reform its arcane procedures, which give industry lobbyists an advantage they don’t need and shouldn’t have.