Thune Statement on State of Wireline Hearing

July 25, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, delivered the following prepared remarks at today’s “The State of Wireline Communications” Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet hearing:

Thank you, Chairman Pryor and Senator Wicker, and thank you to our witnesses for being with us this morning.

Mr. Chairman, I want to commend you for continuing these “state of” hearings to inform our committee about our nation’s communications infrastructure and about the services, opportunities, and challenges facing our constituents as we move deeper into the 21st Century.

Rural communications are a priority of mine, and I am continually amazed at the capabilities being delivered in South Dakota. My home state is one of the national leaders in fiber build-out, thanks to companies like CenturyLink, Midcontinent Cable, and SDN Communications with its seventeen member-owners. Of course, connectivity is not just about physical wires. The satellite services and new 4G mobile networks being deployed today offer even more economic and social opportunity for my fellow South Dakotans and consumers across the country.

Much of this deployment is the result of our commitment to universal service. As we move forward, we should not allow existing networks to wither or future services to go unoffered because of unpredictable or inadequate universal service support. The FCC is directed by law to provide predictable and sufficient mechanisms to preserve and advance universal service, and it needs to abide by that directive.

The state of wireline communications today is clearly one of transition. The old copper wire networks of the 20th Century are being replaced by fiber optics. Circuit-switched telephony is migrating to packet-switched IP technology. American households are no longer faced with phone service from a government-protected monopoly. In fact, less than one-third of households today purchase voice service from their local telephone companies, and nearly 40 percent have “cut the cord,” forgoing wireline voice service altogether. 

Furthermore, we don’t just have competition among multiple wired and wireless networks today, but also new alternatives to real-time voice communication—through texts, tweets, chats, and social media. These alternatives are IP-enabled and delivered over broadband, and they are largely unregulated. But, as consumers demonstrate a preference for less-regulated, competitive alternatives to traditional local phone service, our laws continue to presume a monopoly exists for local voice communications. 

As mentioned by Senator Wicker, we have tasked our staffs with engaging stakeholders and experts to both stay abreast of the ongoing IP transition and to look for ways Congress may be helpful in the modernization of our nation’s communications networks.

We should not approach the IP transition with anxiety and fear, but with optimism and vigilance. Being distracted by what might be lost will be less useful than considering what has and will be gained. This transition brings forward many complex and deeply entrenched issues.  We must therefore identify the challenges that an all-IP world presents, and then determine how ingenuity and innovation, and perhaps regulation, will be able to overcome those challenges.

We should acknowledge the growing choices in today’s market, and pivot from the century-old default assumption that our nation’s communications system is uncompetitive. In laying out a strategic plan for the FCC in 1999, former FCC Chairman William Kennard proclaimed that: “[W]e must resist imposing legacy regulations on new technologies. Our goal should be to deregulate the old instead of regulating the new.” I could not have said it better myself.  

Mr. Chairman, we should focus on empowering individual consumers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. We should target limited federal support to, and encourage investment in, areas that remain underserved because of structural economic reasons. We should understand the promise an all-I.P. world holds for better public safety, better education, better health care, and a more vibrant civic society than we know today. 

This may require removing obstacles—which may include repealing or amending outdated laws, ending inefficient regulations, or even nudging reluctant incumbent business interests forward. American consumers are driving the broadband economy. We, as policymakers, should take their cue and ensure they – not the government – manage the marketplace. 

I look forward to a bright communications future for our nation, and appreciate our witnesses’ thoughts about how we can best pursue it.

Thank you.