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Reform the Universal Service Fund. Clear the regulatory underbrush by eliminating outdated rules.  Resist applying old regulations to new technologies. The list of policy reform suggestions was nearly as long as the roster of esteemed experts in attendance at two communications-centric policy events held in Washington, DC this week, the State of the Net Conference and a Free State Foundation (FSF) luncheon that previewed FSF’s new book, “Communications Law and Policy in the Digital Age: The Next Five Years.”

The annual State of the Net Conference is described as the “largest information technology policy conference in the U.S. and the only one with over 50 percent Congressional staff and government policymakers in attendance.” Regulatory reform was center stage at the 2013 Conference. Panel discussions looked at not only what legacy regulations should be removed in the Digital Age, but how crafting sound Internet policy could restore the U.S. to economic greatness.

Day two of the Conference saw Congressman Steve Scalise (R-LA) give keynote remarks in which he underscored the importance of what he referred to as “Internet freedom.” The Congressman traced the origin of the Internet back to a group of engineers and said that from its inception, it has been governed by a diverse set of stakeholders. If governments start to ignore the multi-stakeholder process, dangerous outcomes are bound to happen. He said that he hopes that Congress can expand on the bipartisan work achieved during the World Conference on International Telecommunications. The U.S. needs to show the world that Internet freedom is a priority, Scalise said, which means eliminating outdated regulations. In an all-IP world, Scalise said it is paramount that technology and telecommunications policy is well-crafted. He had a two wise pieces of advice for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC): resist applying old rules to new technologies and “clear the regulatory underbrush” burdening telecommunications providers.

Joe Waz, Senior Strategic Advisor to Broadband for America member Comcast, moderated a panel titled “The Internet Leadership Challenge: Restoring America to Economic Greatness Through Sound Internet Policy.” When Waz asked how the panel would grade the FCC and other parts of the federal government in implementing the National Broadband Plan, the answers were not positive. Blair Levin, one of the plan’s main authors, said he was upset at a lack of action to get more government spectrum to the market. Grover Norquist, President and Founder of Americans for Tax Reform, said Congress should be forceful in getting this valuable asset to the providers who need it most. On the broadband infrastructure front, Waz asked the panel their take on efforts some municipalities throughout the U.S. are engaging in to build-out their own broadband networks. Bruce Mehlman, Co-Chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance, gave a word of warning on these efforts. He said these networks involve much more than just up-front capital dollars for the initial build-out. He likened municipal broadband projects to a host of other promises states are struggling to meet, such as unsustainable pension obligations. Since these networks are most commonly build by the private sector, municipal projects are often unnecessary and duplicative.

At the FSF book luncheon, President Randolph May opened the event with a declaration: it’s time to re-examine the technology and communications laws of today. Seth Cooper, author of the chapter “Restoring a Minimal Regulatory Environment for a Healthy Wireless Future” in the new FSF book, echoed May’s declaration. He said the U.S. needs to reverse course on the pro-regulatory trend seen in recent years. FCC rationale for regulating wireless services is in the name of competition, but Cooper disagrees that there is a need. Christoper Yoo, author of the chapter “Internet Policy Going Forward: Does One Size Still Fit All?,” believes popular slogans are obscuring the reality of the debate. One such slogan is, “There is one Internet; it must be universally accessible to everyone.” According to Yoo, the notion that all web use is uniform is outrageous. People need different things from the Internet: some may download music, while others simply check e-mail. Pricing strategies that reflect this varying usage are ways for ISPs to have heavier users pay for their impact on the network. Daniel Lyons, author of the chapter “Reforming the Universal Service Fund (USF) for the Digital Age,” had two recommendations to improve the USF: focus more on its core function (provide subsidies to consumers rather than service providers) and base any changes on market-driven reform. He is in favor of a means-testing voucher program for low-income access. Such a program may involve the FCC determining the cost of basic broadband services, and consumers could then use vouchers to choose from different levels of packages (from voice only to high-speed broadband).

There was no shortage of reform ideas to improve telecommunications policy in the U.S. this week. Regulators should heed the advice of these policy experts to ensure the U.S. remains competitive in this new Digital Era. 

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