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Democratic Control Promising for Telecom Issues

WITH THE DEMOCRATS IN POWER, telecom insiders predict privacy, net neutrality and FCC proceedings will get more scrutiny from legislators than they did in 2006. Of course, thats if the 110th Congress is even able to address communications matters. The Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, D.C., says Republicans have left incoming Democrats with a half-trillion-dollar clutter of unfinished spending bills; this, in addition to the Iraq war, government spending and other pressing matters, means lawmakers probably wont return to a sweeping telecom reform bill. Instead, change more likely will come from the states and the FCC, analysts say; any congressional action is expected to be in the form of smaller, more narrow bills.



Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., replaces Texas Republican Joe Barton as head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which deals with key telecommunications issues.

Much to the chagrin of many of us, its rare for communications to end up at the top of the agenda, says Bryan Tramont, a partner in Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP, a Washington, D.C. communications law firm, and a former chief of staff at the FCC. He adds Democratic control means big change for an FCC accustomed to uniform Republican control.

Erik Huey, a lawyer for Venable LLP, which represents a number of communications companies, says privacy and net neutrality advocates should expect a more receptive Congress now that Democrats hold the reigns. The Bush administrations electronic surveillance programs were a significant concern for many constituents and Democrats in Congress, which may spur interest on the Hill in improving privacy protections, Huey says. Net neutrality is also another high-profile issue that may jump back on the radar.

Carol Mattey, the national leader in the regulatory consulting services practice for Deloitte & Touche LLP, worked at the FCC for more than a decade. She says she is skeptical the 110th Congress will enact broad telecom legislation of the sort that was under consideration last year. Its more likely to be discrete issues, such as consumer privacy, she says. On the other hand, Mattey says the FCC could tackle parts of the intercarrier compensation and Universal Service Fund contribution matters. She does not expect Congress to do anything significant on either issue. There could be limited action on net neutrality, she predicts, although the discussions on the topic probably would not get much further than they did in 2006, given its breadth and depth.



Long-time Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye takes over the helm of the Senate Commerce Committee.

There also will be new leaders at the helms of key House and Senate committees. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, was slated to take over Sen. Ted Stevens post on the Senate Commerce Committee. Stevens, an Alaska Republican, and Inouye have worked closely together for years, and industry watchers did not expect their relationship to falter due to Democratic control. Theres mutual respect and they dont engage in gamesmanship to shut the other side out altogether, says Mattey. Meanwhile, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., was set to lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee, taking over for Joe Barton, R-Texas, who notoriously advocated eradicating the USF. Rural supporters said they were pleased to see Barton lose some influence. Many new members of Congress were elected because they care about rural issues, says Shirley Bloomfield, a spokeswoman for the Coalition to Keep America Connected and lawyer for the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association. Supporting universal service is one of the most important steps they can take to demonstrate their commitment to rural Americans.

Indeed, changes to the USF could be afoot. The FCCs Joint Board on Universal Service has proposed allotting funds based on bids, essentially allowing the lowest bidder to use federal money to build networks. This is unlikely to happen in 2007, however, Mattey forecasts. Theyre a long way off from an actual decision on reverse auctions, she says. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin also still wants a contribution method based on the number of lines subscribers have, a mechanism his Democratic counterparts so far have rejected.

Its going to be an interesting year, Mattey says. My final message is the issues may not be resolved in 2007, but its going to be an important window into where things are going.

Links
Center for American Progress www.americanprogress.org
Coalition to Keep America Connected www.keepamericaconnected.org
Deloitte & Touche LLP www.deloitte.com
FCC www.fcc.gov
National Telecommunications Cooperative Association www.ntca.org
Venable LLP www.venable.com
Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP www.wbkq.com

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