Congress Sure to Revisit ’96 Act in 2005, Panelists Say

A serious review of the 1996 Telecommunications Act in the next Congress was a virtual certainty, according to key professional staff members from both the House of Representatives and the Senate during an appearance before the ALTS 2004 Business and Policy Conference this week. They said legislation likely would not occur until the second session, however.

"Revisiting the Act is for real, said James Assey, senior counsel for the Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee. We want to find out what is working and is not working. We have seen that the path for incumbent providers of local service getting into long-distance service has been much easier that the path for long-distance providers who attempt to offer local service."

The Senate Commerce Committee will be chaired by Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-AK) for the first time in his long and storied Senate career. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D.-Ha.) will be the ranking minority member. Stevens new Chief of Staff Lisa Sutherland reminded the audience that Stevens and Inouye have a multi decade personal and professional friendship and would have no trouble working together on any such review.

The ’96 Act, which will be nine years old come February 2005, has been the subject of countless critical reviews of its effectiveness over the years. Throughout the sessions, the critiques continued to pour in. Linda Kinney, Deputy General Counsel for the FCC put it this way: "As often happens with major legislation of this type, when the Congress came to a point where they could not reach agreement, they fudged the language and punted to the regulatory agency to work out the details and make the hard choices. We have been doing that very slowly ever since."

Howard Waltzman, senior majority counsel for the House Commerce Committee, said, "We have been dealing with eight years of uncertainty primarily because the original interconnection rules issued in August of 1996 have never been fully sustained by the courts.

Throughout the day panelists referred to the ’96 Act as having a "stovepipe structure" meaning that sections of the act seem to have been written independently from one another. Each section was designed to deal with a particular market (common carrier, cable, etc.) without coordination or continuity with the rest of the statute. "The structure of the act clearly contributed to the spate of litigation, said Kinney.

Lisa Gelb, deputy bureau chief of the Wireline Competition Bureau, said the act has some flexibility but very little interconnectivity. Over time, she says new, blossoming technologies seemed to end up trapped outside of them.

Sutherland also remarked upon the technological changes that have taken place since the bill took effect. "If you look at the Act, there are only a couple of references to the Internet. At the time, when it was written (1995), there were only 2 million cell phone subscribers total in America," she said.

In terms of what changes might be made to the act, Colin Crowell, long-time legislative assistant to Rep. Ed Markey, referenced the need to first identify what issues are best handled by statutory change as opposed to FCC regulation.

Among the other telecom issues that the congressional staff panel indicated would also come under the review of their various committees next year were VoIP and IP-enabled services regulation, universal service reform and CALEA issues regarding new technologies, including their relevance on national security. While most panelists agreed with the recent finding by the FCC that VoIP services were interstate services (and thus not regulated by the individual states) at least one, Peter Filon argued for more regulatory parity between competing delivery modes.

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