The Free State Foundation recently released Communications Law and Policy in the Digital Age: The Next Five Years, a book with contributions from several industry experts who take a broad look at several high-level issue areas in the communications space. This book is a must-read for the industry veteran who wants to know where industry insider FSF stands on some of the legal and policy challenges facing the communications industry today; but the book’s real value may be for readers who are not as familiar with the communications policy landscape and who want a more in-depth understanding of the issues, beyond TR Daily headlines.
The issues examined in the book are: (1) Telecom Act reform, (2) wireless services regulation, (3) Internet policy (net neutrality), (4) spectrum incentive auctions, (5) the Universal Service Fund, and (6) Public Broadcasting Act reform.
FSF is a nonpartisan think tank, and, not surprisingly, many of its policy recommendations are written from an economic perspective. Edited by FSF President Randolph May, the book draws upon the political theories of economist and Nobel Laureate Friedrich A. Hayek to form its conceptual basis. In the second chapter, the authors highlight some basic principles on the economics of competitive markets and explain how they have applied Hayek’s philosophy of political economy to communications law and policy.
The book begins by clarifying some of the basic assumptions of the discipline, and it alerts the reader to the fact that FSF’s philosophy focuses on free markets (as defined by Hayek) and on the rule of law expressed in terms of contracts and private property. It includes some pointed criticisms of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but not without affirming that our federal agencies have good intentions. Randolph May explains that the FCC attempts to “further the public interest as they see it.” Generally, the book is about highlighting solutions rather than grievances.
In addition to May, the book highlights the work of a distinguished set of authors, including, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Seth Cooper, Prof. Christopher Yoo, Prof. James Speta, Dr. Michelle Connolly, and Prof. Ellen Goodman, among others. Each author weaves three primary ideas within the text of their individual chapters, relating them to their specific subject matter. The recurring themes are that:
- Communications laws and, more importantly, communications regulations are out of step with market realities, (particularly in wireless, wireline, and Internet services sectors);
- Stakeholders should be wary of an FCC with “unconstrained” regulatory authority and the impact it will have on our innovation economy (each chapter examines potential consequences in different communications industry markets); and
- Stakeholders need to think differently about communications policy reforms (the message to them is to take a forward-thinking approach, rather than referentially looking backward at 20th century arrangements).
The tone in some of the chapters, namely those discussing policy reforms, reveals a general sense of exasperation among the writers with the current state of the communications law and policy ecosystem. According to FSF’s authors, the FCC has not kept pace with the marketplace and technological change. May states that, in his view, “the marketplace and technological changes that have occurred since the last major revision of the Communications Act in 1996 have rendered existing law and policy woefully outdated, if not obsolete.”
On the whole, the book provides a historical overview of dynamics among political and industry stakeholders and it explores past, present, and potential outcomes. The discussions on political and industry relationships are especially useful for anyone looking to understand the discordance between communications laws and innovation-dependent industries. The book does a great job of characterizing the relationship between federal actions and resulting bottlenecks in innovation-dependent markets.
The chapters stand on their own, as articles in a journal would do, so there is no pressure to read the book in sequential order. This book can therefore easily become a go-to guide for many researchers and staffers in the industry. I found most of the material engaging and easy to follow, even in chapters where I was less familiar with the issue landscape.
While the ideas presented are not necessarily new or unique to the Free State Foundation, the book is a phenomenal resource. The insights, background, and context provided on the evolution of the communications industry, coupled the resources FSF cited, distinguish the organization’s work from that of other similar organizations. FSF successfully includes a substantial amount of information and high-level analysis without giving up on the narrative along the way. The book is a real page-turner in places, and it does not overwhelm the reader when discussing some of the large issue areas.
I particularly liked the chapters that focused on future developments and big new ideas. Chapters on Internet policy and wireless broadband were also interesting to me, partly because, similar to FSF, I see these as issues that will be center stage issues for some time. I also appreciated that Prof. Christopher Yoo, who authored the chapter on Internet policy, didn’t shy away from providing good explanations of Internet architecture from an engineering perspective. He also linked issues of function and design to his policy recommendations. The reader was not left to wonder where his ideas on Internet governance and the potential impact of various outcomes on the marketplace came from, because they were grounded in his analysis on the design of the network.
As a D.C. think tank, FSF publications can be expected to be full of granular level analyses on communications policy and related issues, and that the book will reflect the organization’s opinions. At no point are FSF’s political leanings unclear; this was refreshing because it meant that, as the reader, I was always aware of the perspective FSF represents on the important issues. At one point in the book, May says that, from an FSF point of view, “reliance on free market competition, not government regulation, should be a central element of communications policy reform.” The pairing throughout the chapters of free market principles versus government regulation tells the reader everything they need to know to understand FSF’s positions.
In summary, this book represents a cross section of policy issues in diverse subsectors of the communications ecosystem from the perspective of established industry experts. It covers a wide swath from spectrum policy to public broadcasting act reforms, and it gives the reader a sense of FSF’s view of the next five years in communications, barring any unforeseen technological advancements that alter things dramatically. Whether you’re an industry veteran or relatively new to communications policy issues, this comprehensive insider’s view of the evolution and future of the communications marketplace does not disappoint.