At least not now. In an order approved 4-1 by the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday, telecom equipment in multitenant buildings that is owned by an incumbent phone company or utility must be shared with competitors. However, the agency chose not to impose direct requirements on landlords, instead asking for further feedback on the subject to see if more rules are required.
Ever since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 sought more competition in telephone and broadband services, newly formed telecom providers have sought access to apartment and office buildings, with mixed success. Many sought to provide service to tenants, while in some cases a company such as Winstar or Teligent simply wished to place an antenna on a rooftop so it could further connect its wireless network.
"A new bottleneck was developing" in these multitenant buildings, FCC Chairman William Kennard said at Thursday's meeting. Access to these buildings "is one of the last few remaining barriers to competition."
But the commission's actions didn't go nearly as far as some telecom providers would have liked. For example, phone companies from now on will be forbidden from entering into exclusive contracts with commercial landlords. However, exclusive contracts will still be permitted in apartment buildings, and existing exclusive contracts won't be affected.
Thomas Sugrue, chief of the FCC's Wireless Bureau that authored the order, couldn't say after the meeting how many exclusive contracts there were in the United States or give an estimate as to their average duration.
"I don't think they're a hundred years," he said in response to one hypothetical figure.
In each case, the commission was careful to impose rules on the incumbent phone companies, not landlords. Sugrue said the commission hasn't said it doesn't have authority over landlords, although that is the opinion of the real estate lobby and is apparently shared by at least one commissioner, Harold Furchtgott-Roth, who voted against the order.
The commission will seek comment on its jurisdiction over landlords and whether it can or should require nondiscriminatory access as requested by Winstar and others. Sugrue said the commission will also do a study of the multitenant telecom market based on data to be provided by telecom companies and building owners.
It's possible, he said, that the difficulties some telecom providers have had in gaining access are temporary, and growing competition will mean the federal government doesn't have to act further.
In another part of the order, the commission extended rules it already had, which permit apartment dwellers to have satellite TV dishes so consumers can set up other equipment as well, such as a fixed wireless antenna for the broadband services being provided by Sprint and WorldCom.
Kennard riled some observers at the monthly public meeting by beginning with an announcement that the item had been pulled off of the agency's agenda, because "we just voted a couple of minutes ago" on the item.
As a result, there was no staff presentation of what had been voted on and no formal statements by the five commissioners on the item. Furchtgott-Roth later released a written statement saying he couldn't release his opinion on the item "for the simple reason that there is currently no final version of the document before us."
FCC spokesman David Fiske, forced to take an unruly mob of reporters into a hallway, defended the lack of public exposure given the item by saying that a lot of items at the commission are voted outside of the monthly meetings, a process called "circulation." He acknowledged it was odd that it was taken off of the agenda moments before a meeting before the vote, but denied that it had occurred 'behind closed doors.'"
The FCC's internal practices have been subject to intense scrutiny of late on Capitol Hill, something Kennard addressed during the meeting.