Communications Law: Hot Topics and Practice Tips

Peter Shields is a partner in Wiley Rein’s Telecom Group and member of the firm’s Management and Administrative Committees in Washington, D.C. Bryan Tramont is a partner at Wilkinson Barker Knauer, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Five years ago, there was no YouTube or Slingbox, and no one knew what a Nano was. Yet from cell phones to streaming Web video to text messaging to landlines and beyond, the way we connect with each other is changing at broadband speed. Here and globally, communications law is forming the policies behind our communications marketplace. And communications lawyers have a front row seat for all of the action.

The practice
Communications law is a true mix of legal, policy, and advocacy work on behalf of companies ranging in size from Fortune 10 telecommunications and media companies to mom-and-pop broadcast station owners. Communications attorneys practice before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Department of Commerce, and other federal agencies, as well as courts across the country, Congress, and state public utility commissions. Young lawyers in this area are often introduced to a variety of practices within a few short years.

What’s hot
Digital Television Transition (DTV). By February 17, 2009, all analog television signals must be converted to digital. Government and communications companies are spending time, money, and resources to ensure that American consumers, particularly rural, elderly, and other populations who require extra assistance, are educated properly about this crossover. The federal government will issue coupons to help subsidize converter boxes ( see to ensure everyone makes the transition. But the process is complex, and the next year will be dominated by efforts to ensure everyone gets this message.

Broadband. Just as the devices and methods we use to communicate change, so, too, do the modes of content delivery. Given the media-rich possibility of broadband, the increase in Web publishers, and the rise of new social computing avenues, broadband will be at the forefront of media policy. Broadband is an essential ingredient for advances in economic development, education, health care, homeland security, and the political system. Essential questions in this area will be how to ensure Americans are fully connected and what are the responsibilities of network owners and application providers.

Wireless spectrum auctions. The FCC recently completed the $19.6 billion 700 MHz spectrum auction with many of the largest wireless communications providers winning new spectrum blocks (groupings of radio frequencies that are made available for licensing) to enhance existing technologies and facilitate new ones. This new spectrum “fuel” is likely to spur additional mobile broadband deployment and even greater connectivity around the country. Considerations in this area include whether there is enough spectrum for all of the intended uses and how government can use this vital resource most effectively for homeland security.

Keys to success
As a young attorney, it can be daunting to enter a field as specialized and diverse as communications law. Nevertheless, some basic tips will start you on the path to success.

Stay ahead of the curve. New attorneys can excel quickly where they become the first to know and use the technologies that shape the legal questions yet to come. An adept attorney will keep abreast of the latest trends affecting their clients.

Know the key players. Become an expert not only in the key institutions (e.g., Congress, the FCC, and courts), but in the processes, policies, and objectives that drive their decisions. Where young attorneys may not have a mastery of subject matter, they should add value by knowing the process and tending to every detail.

Find a mentor. At one point, everyone was a junior attorney. Utilize your local bar association or the Federal Communications Bar Association to identify a communications attorney that may be willing to mentor you.

Build a reputation. The communications bar is still a relatively small bar association, so it is essential that you build a strong reputation and then protect and advance that reputation in everything you do.

Don’t forget the public interest. Government agencies, including the FCC, are driven to serve the public interest. Do not lose sight of this in your advocacy.

One of the great attractions to communications law is that the issues change as quickly as the technologies. So if you love the latest gadgets, this is a great practice area for you.