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The Internet is not a new telephone


By Scott Bradner


Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell seems to have found that the thin air in the mountains of Colorado encouraged clarity  -- in any case he was quite clear about a number of issues when he was interviewed at the recent Aspen Summit on "The Future of the Internet."  ItŐs a shame that some of the clarity just made some of his muddled, or at least inconsistent, thinking more evident.


The meeting was organized by The Progress & Freedom Foundation ( which describes itself on its web page as "a market-oriented think tank that studies the digital revolution and its implications for public policy."  I'm far from sure what a "market-oriented think tank" might be but it seems clear from the information on their web page that they never met a regulation that they liked.  An interesting group to host the chairman of one of the most entrenched of the US government regulatory bodies. 


Powell was interviewed as lunchtime entertainment on the first day of the summit.  (Conference agenda with links to streaming video of the talks at  He said a bunch of things that a market-oriented crowd would applaud and that sounded a bit out of place coming from the chair of the FCC with its three quarters of a century of assuming that regulations will cure all ills.


 Powell said that the FCC was changing.  He said he took over  "an agency that principally looks backwards and tried to inculcate it with a culture that looks forward."  My outside observation is that the FCC still feels rather more comfortable in looking at past regulatory glory than permitting the future. 


Powell said that a "real question facing the country is 'is the Internet going to common carriage or not?'"  He defined common carriage as "government intervention in the prices, terms and conditions under which service is offered."    Later he said that the "seminal question is 'do we convert the Internet into a big black telephone only because we are too lazy or intellectually creative enough to something other than just export what we are used to?" 


Powell said that he would like the basic regulatory assumption to be reversed -- instead of someone convincing the regulators to not regulate (because that almost never sticks). He asked: "why shouldn't the government be the one with the burden of proof" (to regulate)?  Why shouldnŐt a clear need for regulation be shown before any regulation can be imposed?


This sounds, at least to me, like good stuff, and it seems like Powell was not just playing to the crowd, he talks this way and acts this way quite often.  But I think that he has some trouble translating this philosophy into action.  Far too often he seems to act on principal rather than on the real world.  This is especially true when it comes to regulations about people trying to compete with the incumbent phone companies.  His proposals ignore the last century of government-enforced rules requiring citizens to pay many times over to build a ubiquitous telecommunications infrastructure.  He seems to think that it would be easy for other companies to overcome that head start.  Sometimes by looking back, at least a little, you can figure out the present is not simple.


Powell said that "the Internet is something different - it's not a new telephone."  True enough, but we cannot pretend that there are no phones or any phone legacy as we set the stage for the future.


disclaimer: Harvard has a hard time separating legacy from required but is trying to do so heading into the future but the above complaint is mine.