- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Like many Americans, last month my family enjoyed watching our Olympians push themselves to the limit, mentally and physically, to compete and win against the world’s best.

With every millisecond counting, we would never dream of asking these athletes to carry extra weight. Yet this is exactly what Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asks each day of our telecommunications providers.

While Congress claimed to “deregulate” the industry with the Telecom Act of 1996, regulations continue to handicap the nation’s telecommunications sector. Just one of the orders implementing the Act was 737 pages long with more than 3,200 footnotes. Since the Act’s passage, FCC spending has gone up 37 percent, the number of Federal Register pages devoted to the FCC record has tripled and, perhaps most disturbing of all, there has been a 73 percent increase in telecom lawyers to litigate these new rules.

In today’s digital world, cable, phone, wireless and satellite companies strive to offer competitive packages that provide consumers a full suite of video, voice and Internet services. Internet service providers such as Google and Yahoo are poised to enter the market as well, and producers of content and applications are competing to offer consumers an exciting array of new services. Unfortunately, each provider is bound by a different set of confusing and burdensome rules that in many cases were written before these technologies even existed.

Today, wireless phones and VoIP are replacing traditional phones. Americans are trading in slow dial-up connections for broadband. Commuters listen to music or watch movies they’ve downloaded to portable gadgets; and wireless e-mail devices, often dubbed “crack-berries,” are gaining new addicts every day. Innovation has opened up a whole new world of telecom services and transformed once-limited wires and wireless facilities into converged platforms that can deliver an array of voice, video and data.

Most dramatically, cable and phone companies are attempting to rewrite their business models with an eye toward each another’s customers. Cable companies already offer telephone service, and phone companies are ready to deploy new high-speed networks that allow them to offer video programming. But outdated franchise laws threaten to derail these efforts by needlessly impeding entry into new video markets.

Fortunately, the FCC has sought to keep cable free from “legacy” telephone regulations. This philosophy should be expanded to avoid placing any unnecessary burdens on new competitors in the video market as well.

Regulatory barriers that stifle innovation and restrict consumer choice are also harming our standing in the global economy. Asian competitors are leaving the U.S. in the dust. A recent study shows that since 2001, America has slipped from fourth to 12th place among the top-30 world economies in the percentage of people with broadband connections. South Korea, which ranked first in the study, boasts nearly 25 percent of its citizens having broadband access compared to only 12 percent of Americans. What’s more, Americans who have broadband access pay nearly twice as much for it as their South Korean counterparts.

That is why I have introduced the Digital Age Communications Act (S. 2113). This legislation would sweep away the archaic rules that accumulated over the last century and open the market to all service providers who would play by the same rules. Consumers in a competitive market, not regulators in government, would decide what services best suit them.

Providers would be forced to compete for customers and rather than attempt to establish new rules for every new technology, the FCC would focus its efforts on guarding consumers against any abuse of market power.

We no longer live in a monopoly era. It is past time that Congress act to protect American jobs, by getting the FCC out of the way of this dynamic market.

As Congress begins to debate this and other legislation that will determine the future of our high-tech sector, you can be sure that companies who enjoy government protection from competition and lawyers who profit from the current system of litigation will emerge from the woodwork to try to defend their piece of the regulatory pie. Congress must resist these pleas to pick winners and losers, and instead put the focus where it belongs: on benefiting consumers through robust competition.

Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, is a member of the United States Senate.

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