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Streaming and OTT Spark Efforts to Update Communications Act

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The growth of streaming and over-the-top (OTT) video are major reasons why two influencial House Republicans have begun an effort to examine and update the Communications Act of 1934, a former Federal Communications Commissioner told Streaming Media.

Streaming and OTT are revolutionizing the broadcast marketplace and they are “responsible for at least 50 percent of the reasons for needing to update the [broadcasting] laws,” said Robert McDowell, a former FCC commissioner who was with the Republican members of the House when they announced the initiative.

On Dec. 3, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Communications and Technology Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) used a Google Hangout to announce the “multi-year effort to examine our nation’s communications laws and update them for the internet era,” Upton said. “The United States has been the global leader in innovation and growth of the internet, but unfortunately our communications laws have failed to keep pace,” he added.

To further promote that effort, on Dec. 4 Walden made a brief presentation at the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank, just prior to a panel on “Retransmission Consent in the 21st Century,” at which McDowell was the moderator.

“The Communications Act is now painfully out of date,” Walden said. “We think it’s time to take a hard look at the increasing gap between the outdated laws and the incredible innovation and investment that the internet has brought to every silo of communications,” he said. “In the on-demand world of the internet and mobility, the statutes that govern the video marketplace are ignorant of the changes that are taking place around them,” he said.

The surge in consumer use of streaming and on-demand video has created a question that needs to be answered, Walden said: How to ensure that viewers are able to access the programming they want while at the same time respecting the rights of stations that transmit that programming over the air. “So we’re rolling up our sleeves and asking all stakeholders to come to the table and help us modernize the law,” he said.

In 1996, the Communications Act (P.L. 73-416)was amended and sections replaced by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (P.L. No. 104-104). “When the Communications Act was updated almost 18 years ago, no one could have dreamed of the many innovations and advancements that make the internet what it is today,” Walden said.

“We plan to look at the Communications Act and all of the changes that have been made piecemeal over the last 89 years and ask the simple question: ‘Is this working for today’s communications marketplace?’ Our goal is to make sure this critical sector of our economy thrives because of the laws around it, not in spite of them.”

McDowell added that the effort to update the Communications Act is focused on learning from consumer behavior and adopting nimble and flexible laws that protect consumers, but otherwise allow a lot of freedom in the market.

The first actions to update the Communications Act will begin in 2014, Walden said. Those actions will include the development of whitepapers on different aspects of the act, and that will lead to the collection of data from stakeholders that will be reviewed, according to the chairman.

“Everyone is going to get their opportunity to weigh in and give us good guidence and counsel on what works, what doesn’t, and what they think needs to be changed,” he said. “I’ve been around long enough to know that the industries will try to jockey for advantage, but that’s part of the public process system,” he said, adding, “Once people weigh in, we’ll digest that.”

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