Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 2/ February 1, 1995 / Page 4

Deciding The Nation's Telecommunications Policy

by John December (

WASHINGTON -- Al Gore wants to bring common sense to telecommunications policy. In his speech before the Conference on Federal, State, and Local Telecommunications Policy on January 9th, Gore described his idea of "agile" government regulation as the key to ensure competition. He touted the accomplishments of de-regulation (notably the break-up of AT & T) -- and emphasized the non-partisan nature of the need for telecommunications reform. However, in describing the Clinton administration's position on government regulation (that it is necessary to ensure competition), Gore established a theme that would be contradicted at a Senate hearing later that day.

The conference: cooperation among federal, state, and local policymakers

Hosted by Northwestern University's Annenberg Washington Program and the Information Infrastructure Task Force, the Conference on Federal, State, and Local Telecommunications Policy gave many local government representatives a chance to make their voices heard in the process of telecommunications policy development. All members of the panels echoed the Vice President's enthusiasm for the potential for telecommunications to enrich citizens' lives.

Newton (television = "vast wasteland") Minow, director of the Annenberg Washington Program, introduced Vice President Gore and Secretary Brown to the audience, and then briefly introduced panelists from state and local governments. Gore began by outlining the administration's goal: to work with industry, Congress, and the people to decide "the rules necessary for a fair game" in telecommunications competition before the intense commercial competition among telecommunications companies can begin. Most significantly, Gore stated:

"... the game should not begin on some arbitrary date without rules at all on the mistaken assumption that a calendar can replace a rulebook."

Commerce Secretary Ron Brown (speaking just before Gore) was also enthusiastic about the advances already brought by advanced telecommunications and he emphasized how telecommunications policy must remove the "shackles of burdensome regulation that keeps in place an antiquated monopoly structure." Brown previewed Gore's call for "agile" government regulation to ensure competition.

West Virginia Governor Gaston Caperton was the first non-federal offical to speak as he declared his state's commitment to educational technology as a key part of creating "computer literate children." Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass), the principle author of the Cable Act of 1992, also recognized the changing nature of technology: the telephone wire may be used for cable broadcast, and cable into the home may be used for telephone service. He observed that the U.S., because it is free from the strong government-private telecommunications connection present in many other countries, is far freer to persue innovation at all levels. Markey cautioned that the U.S. cannot enter "information apartheid" without the skills and education, and that technology can be a "democratizing force."

Larry Irving of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) introduced the second panel, whose members also explored the role of telecommunications in their communities. Victor Ashe, Mayor of Knoxville, TN, and president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, observed that telephone service started in cities, and that cities also play a key role in cable television regulation. He criticized Markey's statements for his lack of focus on activity at the local (state, county, and city) levels.

Randy Johnson, Vice President of the National Association of Counties, asserted that counties are consumers as well as regulators (e.g., cable television) of telecommunications. Johnson sees local governments as the best authority to determine the usefulness of resources and services, and characterizes his view of the federal government as ensuring competition. Most significantly, his statement, "local governments have a role in .. national information infrastructure" got the most reaction from people present at the conference. This was because it stresses state and local government officials' desire to open up the process of telecommunications policy, so that federal intiatives don't always set the pace.

FCC Chairman Reed Hundt again echoed the Clinton administration's emphasis on policy to ensure competition. He outlined the precepts of this policy:

  1. Consumers must have choices
  2. Businesses must have opportunities to participate
  3. Markets must be protected by fair rules of competition
Hundt outlined how these principles played out in various media. In satellites, commercial home services now compete with cable for television delivery, ensuring more choice for the consumer. In wireless technology, the spectrum auctions will ensure competition and create "a boom in wireless, digital communications." In the phone/cable area, regulation must be developed to ensure that companies don't use telephone revenues to subsidize cable work. Finally, in broadcasting, standards must be developed for digital communication. Hundt pointed out the need for market-based solutions to these issues and the dissemination of information technology.

Dale Hatfield of the Annenberg Washington Program introduced a third panel to discuss federal, state, and local telecommunications experience. Most vocal on this panel was Anne Bingaman, Assistant U.S. Attorney General in charge of Anti-trust division of the Department of Justice. She evoked the 1890 Sherman Act as well as the 1982 AT&T breakup to stress the administration's emphasis on government intervention to ensure competition. According to Bingaman, the antitrust laws as the legal basis for competition have brought major benefits to consumers, in terms of new products and lower prices. These laws, she said, have worked "over the dead bodies of most people in the country" and that the legislative process is "messy," allowing no one government agency to dominate.

Fast track for legislation in a Senate hearing

In a Senate hearing at 3:30pm that same day, partisanship in telecommunications policy became more apparent as members of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation met. At this hearing, the participants all seemed very anxious to start the race that Al Gore said needed some rules first.

Larry Pressler (R-South Dak.), in his new role as committee chair, clarified the objective of the hearing: to get major telecommunications policy reform through the Senate and House quickly. This reform should be taking a decidely "hands off" (and Republican-dominated) approach toward easing government intervention in telecommunications. In fact, committee member Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) recalled the success of the committee under the previous chair and plaintively asked that Democrats be called as witnesses (especially since the witnesses for the hearing that afternoon were all Republican).

Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Oregon) called for a starting date for telecommunications competition and urged the committee to tell the participants: "gentlemen, start your engines; we are going to have a race and let the best competitor win." Packwood's statment starkly contradicted Gore's "rules before the race" imagery.

Sen John McCain (R-Arizona) railed against over-regulation (particularly S.1822 which Dole had blocked the previous year) and warned against "the glory of increased regulation." McCain called for decreased authority for the FCC and less regulation overall. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana) also criticized the Cable Act of 1992 and said "we have to turn these technologies loose...."

So it was no surprise that the first witness, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kansas) was preaching to the choir. Dole said he wants to work quickly on a "deregulatory" bill that removes the "regulatory shackles" on the industry. The other two witnesses---Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-Virginia), House Commerce Committee chair, and Rep. Jack Fields (R-Texas), House Telecommunications Subcommittee chair, echoed this same theme: a House bill needs to be worked out in which competition, not regulation, is key. Bliley pointed out that the "federal government cannot guarantee competition" and that telecom policy should not be up to the courts or controlled ad-hoc by the states. Therefore, the imperative is to pass reform which is "guidance without micromanagement," and which, according to Fields, "regulate[s] only where absolutely necessary and let[s] market forces govern."

After the witness' testimony, Sen. Inouye wondered aloud if Pressler's goal to pass a telecommunications bill by the fourth of July is reasonable. Pressler was quite positive that they would quickly draft legislation to:

  1. Open world markets
  2. Open full access among various media (to avoid regulatory apartheid)
  3. Minimize government regulations

Which version of the reality that will take shape in telecommunications legislation will be decided over the next weeks and months. Judging by tone of the Republican members of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, this process will be rapid. If these members have their way, Al Gore's "agile" regulation may give way to a "starter pistol" approach in which markets will decide national telecommunications policy. ¤

John December prepared this article based on viewing the Federal, State, and Local Conference on Telecommunications Policy and the Senate Commerce Committee hearings live on C-SPAN on January 9, 1995, and using supporting documentation from the online information sources linked to this article.

Copyright © 1995 by John December. All Rights Reserved.

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