Cerf: Dump Legacy Telecom Laws

WASHINGTON — With Congress talking about a possible revisit of key provisions in the 1996 Telecommunications Act next year and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mulling regulations for IP-centric services, interest is running high in Washington over public policy for emerging broadband services never anticipated by the landmark Telecom act.

Moving to lasso the interest, MCI’s vice president for technology strategy, Vint Cerf, urged lawmakers Friday to adopt a brand new regulatory approach to broadband. He is among a group that is calling for a “network layers” model that would separate services and applications, such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), from the underlying transmission medium.

According to Cerf, this new model would create a sustainable legal and regulatory framework for the IP world and prevent the imposition of legacy telecommunications regulations on IP-based applications.

In launching the initiative, Cerf is also bringing his own reputation to the federal policy debate. A co-designer of TCP/IP protocols who was active in early Internet architecture, Cerf has been involved in about every debate about the Internet since his earliest days at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Cerf was one of the headliners Friday at a Capitol Hill gathering of Internet policy luminaries, including Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, and Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s senior policy counsel. The discussion was organized by the Consumer Federation of America as a forum for Senate and House staffers working on telecom policy reform.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps gave the keynote, but it was Cerf the policy shapers came to hear.

“The silo model that we have in the United States divides up a lot of telecommunications services into different classes depending on not only the application but also the underlying transport medium,” Cerf said. “So, voice over wireline and voice over wireless, we regulate that differently. We regulate audio and video broadcast differently than those first two and we regulate the cable television industry differently from the broadcast industry.”

Cerf said the Internet “just destroys that whole model because it can carry anything, including voice and video, over Internet packets and Internet packets don’t care what the underlying transmission medium is. So this [legacy] model is in great conflict with the fundamental architecture of the Internet.”

He proposed a legal shift in approach based on “layering” principles.

“The reality of the world is that the Internet comes in a layered form, like a layer cake, but our regulatory structures look like silos and when you mix them together you get gridlock,” Cerf said.

In another sense, he said, the layer approach is like the floors of a building with the lower ones supporting the upper ones. Cerf’s MCI model suggests a physical network layer for transport and access, followed by a logical network layer (i.e., IP), an applications layer and a content/transactions layer at the top.

“This layered structure is a very open tool for thinking about where and how we should apply regulations and where and how laws might apply,” Cerf said. “Each one of those can be better understood by thinking about at what layer one wants to apply the law, at what layer one wants to apply regulations.”

Cerf said the layers model supports principles that say any attempts to limit content or applications layer activities should not result in logical or physical layer regulation. In addition, he said physical access layer players such as incumbent Bell-provisioned DSLs should allow nondiscriminatory access by other networks and applications.

“Since policy often has a direct effect on players, we need to know at what layer in the architecture we want the policy to influence,” he said.

Cerf’s support of open access is welcome news to a powerful Internet alliance known as the Coalition of Broadband Users and Innovators (CBUI) pushing for the FCC to block broadband providers from interfering with or impairing subscribers’ ability to use their broadband service to access lawful Internet content or services.

“The open standards notion has been absolutely critical to the effectiveness of the architecture. Let me emphasize the standards: if you don’t have standards, then you don’t have interworking and interoperability.” Cerf said.

If the FCC or Congress fails to embrace the layers model, Cerf said it still holds potential for lawmakers and regulators.

“Even if we don’t actually apply this layer concept in some literal sense, we should at least hang on to the concept so we can better understand what we are doing when we do write legislation or, perhaps, rewrite legislation regarding telecommunications,” he said.

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