Senate considers revising Telecom Reform Act

The Internet rated only a footnote in the landmark 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act. Now, the Net is such serious competition for the telecom industry that many legislators favor at least 'tinkering with' the 1996 act, said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), speaking at today's Washington conference sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee.

Burns said he thinks the act needs rewriting after only nine years because technology is moving so much faster than in the past'it was three decades before the 1934 telecom law was rewritten.

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) described how the Net has changed communications in his state as well as his Washington office.

'Office calls home used to be rationed, they cost so much,' he said. 'Now we make dozens of staff calls to Alaska each day at 3 to 5 cents a minute. Our 240 isolated communities had no phones except for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Now each village has telemedicine and distance education and emergency alerts.'

Stevens, whose committee will undertake the reform work, said he is 'not exactly sure whether we should rewrite or amend the 1996 act.' He said he does believe 'all communications technologies'wireline or wireless'should be treated equally. We must not have multiple separate sets of regulations' for new services such as WiMax and IP video. Congress should foster more competition and innovation, not try to 'put every new technology in its own regulatory box. I do believe we will act in this [109th] Congress.'

But Stevens added that state or local regulators 'may be more suited than Congress or the Federal Communications Commission to address the policy questions about service quality and consumer protection.'

Instead of hearings, he said, his committee will hold multiple informal sessions with interested parties, a practice invented by the late Sen. Warren Magnuson, he said. 'We don't want to touch the 1996 act until we understand what we're doing,' he said.

The House of Representatives also plans to move several telecom bills, Stevens said. The ultimate result will be to 'take care of technology as it evolves and not have to rewrite every five years.'

One of the most pressing issues surrounding that evolution is taxation of enhanced IP services, which are difficult or impossible to bill and tax separately from the common carriers' telecom facilities they ride on, said James Assey, minority counsel to the Commerce Committee.

He said the committee is 'trying to feel our way to a proper role for the FCC. We don't want to burden new technologies with taxes, but to the extent IP services compete with circuit-switched [taxed] services, there's an argument for fairness.'

A November 2004 FCC decision denied states the right to regulate voice over IP as they do common carrier services, because 'state regulators were getting out in front and would have created a crazy quilt,' he said. 'Galvanic changes are going on in the marketplace. The Senate is trying to read the tea leaves.'

Christopher Libertelli, senior adviser to the FCC chairman, said the 1996 act 'has had a demonstrable effect on consumers' welfare' by cutting long-distance costs. 'But we need an intercarrier regime'unitary charges'more like peering than like access charges' for using another carrier's facilities, he said.

Above all, telecom reform 'should benefit consumers, not producers,' Libertelli said. 'All these transitions will take multiple years.'

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