Airing a sensible global telecom policy prescription

Plan could help big telcos, net neutrality backers find common ground.

Every now and then, life brings you a pleasant surprise. I got one last week when a senior executive at a telecom equipment vendor made a prescription for global telecom policy that -- drum roll, please -- actually made sense.

Some context: Telecom policy at the moment seems to be considerably more about passion than reason. If you oppose the government regulation promoted by the net neutrality crowd, you're an evil bigot who wants to deny struggling young companies the chance to succeed. (Never mind that Google, one of the strongest net neutrality proponents, rightly sees it as a way to barricade the gates against future competition.) Conversely, if you doubt telecom companies' willingness to freely permit access to their networks, you're a die-hard opponent of the free market (and probably dislike motherhood, apple pie, and the Fourth of July, too).

So it's a refreshing change when someone injects a note of reason into all the noise and fulminations. Here's what Torbjorn Nilsson, special adviser to Ericsson's CEO, said when asked to recommend the three changes to global telecom policy he'd most like to see:

First, he recommends that Europeans and others follow the United States' lead and auction off the 700-MHz spectrum. It's nice to hear that we've got something right in the United States. Moreover, countries in Europe and elsewhere that aren't following suit are essentially wasting prime networking spectrum on an outdated technology (analog TV). I couldn't agree more that a regulatory framework that's still based on 20th century technology is definitely inadequate when it comes to 21st century challenges.

Secondly, he'd like to see a serious discussion of net neutrality -- one that takes into consideration both the monopolistic tendencies of telcos (even stronger outside the United States) and those of their new-age competitors (the content companies). Again, thumbs up. Nobody's pretending the telcos are angels with lily-white motives, but it's equally foolish to assume that of their competitors.

Finally, he'd like to see regulation on a service basis rather than a technology basis. Amen. Any regulatory framework needs to acknowledge that communications services are exactly that -- services that have historically been delivered across an ever-changing technical infrastructure. Voice services with human operators shouldn't be treated differently from voice services delivered across digital switches -- and ditto for TDM voice and VOIP.

I'll take this thought a bit further -- regulators should also start rationalizing the outdated and inappropriate distinction between "voice" and "data" services. As I've pointed out in several previous columns, voice calls enjoy a higher degree of privacy than data transmission. But with packetized voice the distinction is moot -- and moreover, there's no credible justification for protecting "voice" while permitting easy eavesdropping on both. So I'd add "a coherent and consistent expectation of privacy for all transmissions" to the list of necessary policy changes. Here, the folks in Canada and Europe are way ahead of the United States.

The bottom line? Twentieth century policy frameworks need to come into the 21st century -- and not just in the United States.

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