Soap Box: You Can’t Keep a Good Competitor Down

Posted: 5/2003

You Can’t Keep a Good Competitor

By Walt Blackwell

have been president of the Association for Communications Enterprises (ASCENT)
for nearly a year now and it’s been an exciting yet demanding time. In
particular, I have enjoyed the challenge of understanding the telecommunications
industry from the perspective of our members, which are mostly small companies
with a very special "attitude." Or, put another way, with a strong
entrepreneurial spirit.

One of the great things, in fact,
about ASCENT is its small-business heritage. In helping to advance the interests
of the members, it’s especially gratifying to know that you are helping the very
companies that make such an important contribution to the economic health of
this country. In terms of creating more competition, more innovative products
and more jobs for American workers, small firms are second to none.

That the majority of ASCENT members
are small businesses, however, is both good news and bad. The good news is many
policymakers in Washington and the states recognize and appreciate the value of
small companies, including small telecom companies, and work diligently on their

The bad news is there are today —
and have been for decades — powerful corporations that see small business as a
threat to their competitive dominance. And these corporations have waged an
ongoing campaign to limit, if not destroy, the ability of small businesses to
compete. The telecommunications industry of course is no exception to the
struggle between big and small firms. Starting with certain IXCs in the early
’70s and continuing with the regional Bell operating companies today, there has
been a succession of corporate titans that would like nothing better than to
have the telecom playing field all to themselves.

With their almost limitless
resources, it’s no surprise the RBOCs have had little trouble over the years in
rounding up enough lawmakers to push their view that "big is better."
And usually what follows is Capitol Hill or state-specific legislation, or a
Federal Communications Commission order, guaranteed to wreak havoc among small
competitive carriers.

But, the wonderful quality of ASCENT
members and entrepreneurial companies in general is their ability to quickly
alter course when market forces shift direction. Indeed, regardless of the
obstacles thrown in front of them, such firms typically find a way to go over,
under, or around them in pursuit of their business objectives.

You may recall there was a good deal
of gloom and doom prior to the Feb. 20 release of the FCC’s Triennial Review
order. Prognosticators were warning the entire competitive side of the industry
would go down in flames if key unbundled elements and the UNE-Platform no longer
were available to new entrants. I was among those who did not share this view.
Instead, I felt that ASCENT members and the competitive community as a whole
would find a way to succeed even without critical UNEs and UNE-P.

Fortunately, we don’t have to deal
with this doomsday scenario for at least several months and probably longer
because the FCC, despite fierce political pressure by the RBOCs, elected not to
take UNEs and UNE-P off the table. And while I’m confident that competitors will
find a way to adapt regardless of the ultimate outcome of the Triennial Review,
the fact that competitive carriers still have these critical tools to compete
head-to-head against the incumbents is hugely exciting.

From my vantage point, incidentally,
I witnessed first-hand the tireless effort that went into the Triennial Review
lobby campaign by ASCENT members, professional staff and policy consultants. In
my view, this campaign played a key role in the proceeding’s favorable outcome
and is a classic example of what can be accomplished when people with common
interests unite to achieve a common goal. It is something for which we can all
be proud.

Before continuing, I wish to point
out this editorial was written before the complete text of the FCC Triennial
Review order had been released. The "devil" clearly is in the details
with an order of this scope and magnitude, and rumors were flying during the
days leading up to the order’s release that the complete document would not be
as favorable to the competitive community as the FCC implied in an early news
release. I can only hope the rumors turn out to be false.

It’s hard to overstate the
importance of the Triennial Review order and, with this in mind, ASCENT is
taking steps to make sure the competitive community has the chance to fully
understand its ramifications as soon as possible. Since the full text of the
order was expected to be released mid-to-late April, a special post-conference
workshop has been organized for the 2003 ASCENT Spring Conference, May 19- 22 in
Anaheim, Calif., for the very purpose of explaining in intricate detail the
provisions of the landmark decision. The workshop will be held on Thursday, May
22, and I encourage everyone with a stake in competitive telecommunications to

Our job is far from over, of course.
While the FCC order avoided the immediate loss of existing UNEs and UNE-P, it
shifted the battleground to the states. Fifty state public service commissions
soon will begin the process (if they have not already) of determining whether
UNEs, such as local switching and transport, and UNE-P, will continue to be made
available to competitive carriers. In many respects, the state proceedings are
more crucial to the fate of competitors than the just completed FCC proceeding.

But despite the challenges that
remain, I now sense a growing optimism among ASCENT members that we are turning
a corner. It might be for no other reason than the Triennial Review has given
individual companies and the entire competitive industry additional time to
strengthen their economic foothold. As each new entrant gains market share, and
as these firms in the aggregate play an increasingly larger competitive role in
local telecom services, perhaps policy makers will be increasingly reluctant to
take away the very tools that are responsible for the success of this industry

Having survived the worst industry
slump in decades, today’s competitive carriers view the road ahead with
confidence. Couple this self-assurance with the notion that critical network
elements and UNE-P will continue to be at their disposal, and there is a certain
degree of excitement that hasn’t been felt in quite some time. All things
considered, the future is looking pretty good.

Walt Blackwell is president of
ASCENT, an association of communications providers.



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