GOP-controlled FCC faces full plate

By Margret Johnston, IDG News Service |  Government

Washington, D.C. -- The U.S. Federal Communications Commission under the new Bush administration will hear a familiar plea from network industry representatives in Washington: Show regulatory restraint when considering emerging telecommunications services and technologies.

The FCC began its transition under the Republican administration last week after Chairman William Kennard, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, concluded his tenure on Friday.

The new commission, which is expected to be headed by incoming FCC Commissioner Michael Powell, could face major issues, such as an internal agency reform effort spearheaded by the new chairman of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.). But there are other less-sweeping agenda items, and the plea for restraint will be loud and clear, industry officials say.

That reform and reauthorization of the FCC is a priority of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says Ken Johnson, communications director for the panel, formerly called the House Commerce Committee.

"If we made one mistake when we passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 it's that we didn't reform the agency at the same time we reformed the law," Johnson says. "We intend to vigorously pursue a very ambitious and aggressive agenda, which will include a top-to-bottom look at the FCC."

Specifically, Tauzin's initiative aims to rein in the FCC's power concerning merger review. While the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission have legitimate oversight over mergers, Johnson says the FCC has advanced a political agenda by placing conditions on mergers.

The FCC also is expected to continue monitoring the efforts of companies in terms of their self-regulation front, officials say.

Some packet-switched telecommunications carriers have pledged to participate in a voluntary trial of major outage reporting, says Tricia Paoletta, vice president of government relations for Level 3 Communications. The idea is that if companies show good faith by voluntarily reporting network outages, it will be less likely the FCC will impose regulation.

Currently, traditional telecommunications companies, such as AT&T and the Baby Bells, must report major outages involving more than one carrier and more than one city. The industry is concerned that the FCC might extend that to companies that own and operate packet-switched networks, Paoletta says.

Level 3 CEO James Crowe is chairman of the Network Reliability and Interoperability Council (NRIC), an industry board of officials from 40 companies that advises the FCC. NRIC began the voluntary reporting trial last year by asking major trade associations, such as the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and the National Cable Telecommunications Association, to ask their members to participate.

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