FCC chairman calls for new telecom laws

Current regulations, written before the Internet era, are "broken" and do "not match reality anymore."

ASPEN, Colo.--The head of the Federal Communications Commission said on Monday that the nation's telecommunications laws, written before the rise of the Internet, are "broken" and need to be fixed by Congress.

"Is the current law broken and we need a new one? Of course," said FCC Chairman Michael Powell. The law is "dated--it does not match reality anymore."

Powell's comments at a Progress and Freedom Foundation conference here mark his strongest criticism yet of the 1934 and 1996 telecommunications acts, which created arcane regulatory categories that do not clearly include the Internet. That lack of clarity has bedeviled regulators and left entrepreneurs puzzled about what laws might eventually apply to their businesses.

Powell singled out voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) as a "killer app for legal policy change" because it pits two different regulatory models against each other and forces governments to choose which will prevail. The two models: a highly-regulated "common carrier" environment of cable TV and telephone service, and the lightly-regulated world of the Internet.

Key politicians already have said they intend to revisit the 1996 Telecommunications Act starting next year. Powell's criticisms seem designed to influence the direction of the debate: "Just giving (Internet Protocol) and Internet communications a category of its own would be a good start."

"VoIP is a great thing to be forcing the conversations," Powell said. "I'd like to see (the law) modified, rewritten, scrapped or something... I think the statute is written (with categories) that don't make sense" in today's world of VoIP, broadband and wireless technologies.

Complaints about the 1996 law have existed for years, of course, but it has remained intact so far. But VoIP is catalyzing a legislative response: at a hearing on the topic early this year, for instance, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said "the 1996 Act is a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation. (Now) some of my colleagues have joined me in expressing the need for Congress to take a serious look at reforming the act."

Powell also discussed his Web log, which he launched in July. "It's a refreshing place to talk about difficult topics in a nontraditional way," Powell said. "Nobody ever explains where the indecency laws come from, just that you're enforcing them."

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