DeMint Introduces Digital Age Communications Act

In another of a series of Capitol Hill attempts to rewrite the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, yesterday introduced the Digital Age Communications Act of 2005 (DACA). The bill proposes market-oriented, competition-based telecom and communications reform.

One Washington, D.C.-based analyst noted the legislation seemed to come out of nowhere the introduction was so quick, she noted, that she had not yet had a chance to read the bill.

We can no longer force a modern, dynamic industry to operate on archaic rules that destroy job creation, limit consumer choice and needlessly raise prices, DeMint said on Thursday. Congress must wake up. These regulations originated when rotary telephones were our only way to communicate. Today, cable, phone and wireless offer consumers similar services, but each one is bound by a different set of confusing and burdensome regulations.

The DACA bill would regulate the communications industry like other businesses, making sure it does not engage in unfair competition, DeMint said. It also would treat like services alike, a common complaint among telecom executives who perceive cable companies do not have to abide by the same regulations they do when offering the same services. Phone service, whether offered by cable, wireline or wireless companies, would have to comply with the same set of rules, DeMint said.

DACA also attempts to reform the Universal Service Fund so all providers would contribute equally, DeMints press release noted. DeMint supports the numbers-based system, which would assess USF fees of $1-$2 more per month to everyone with a landline telephone, regardless of whether consumers make long-distance calls. Under DeMints bill, however, low-income households would be exempt from paying the fee.

DeMints reworking of the USF would include making sure funds are distributed in a technologically neutral manner.

USF distribution and contribution methodologies are hotly debated issues on the Hill and at the FCC, and USTelecom was the first association to take issue with that portion of the proposed bill.

While the DeMint bill is intended to maximize consumer choice, we are gravely concerned by its universal service provisions that would reduce and cap the fund and abdicate responsibility for this important program to the states, said Ed Merlis, USTelecoms senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs. We also plan to work closely with Senator DeMint to ensure that other provisions in the bill do not inadvertently broaden the FCCs powers in todays highly competitive communications market.

Wesley Denton, DeMints spokesman, said there were some misunderstandings regarding the proposed USF changes. Only the high-cost fund would be affected, he said.

DeMint also aims to phase out cable television franchises over four years and give states the right to enforce federal rules, and manage public rights-of-way.

BellSouth Corp. lent the bill its support, issuing a statement from Herschel L. Abbott, vice president of government affairs, that read in part, “We are particularly pleased with the bill’s focus on further clarifying the role that state commissions should play in regulating the industry.

The Progress & Freedom Foundation, a think tank that promotes market deregulation, also said it endorses the bill, which is not surprising since the nonprofit organization had a hand in developing the legislation. The foundation has been working on the so-called Digital Age Communications Act Project all year to provide what it calls guidance, as politicians reform U.S. communications laws.

Nothing likely will happen on the DACA bill until after Congress re-convenes in January.

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