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Senator to launch telecom agenda

Conrad Burns, a Senate GOP point man on communications issues, is planning a new set of telecom and Net bills.

Senator Conrad Burns, one of several Senate GOP point men on communications issues, will roll out a new set of bills Friday targeted at telecommunications and the Internet.

The items will include speeding rollout of broadband Internet access, boosting Internet privacy, and privatizing the government-owned satellite network that provides much of the world's telephone and satellite video services.

A Burns spokesman said that many of the issues, which the Montana Republican has dubbed the "Digital Dozen" are items that Congress looked at last year, but which ran of time or failed to reach a critical mass of support.

Burns, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on communications, has been one of the most active legislators on telecommunications issues in recent years. Along with Senate Commerce chairman John McCain (R-Arizona), he has been a vocal critic of the Federal Communications Commission on several fronts.

At least two of those issues are likely to find their way into the package of bills. Burns has helped lead a drive for congressional reauthorization of the FCC's budget, which has not happened officially since 1900. He chaired a series of hearings on the issue last year, and says he will pursue the issue again this session.

Burns and others want to use that venue as a way to scrutinize the FCC's management of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Congressional critics in both parties say regulators have misinterpreted the Act, by unnecessarily blocking the Baby Bells' entry into long distance telephone markets.

In several recent decisions, however, the Supreme Court has upheld the FCC's actions on the Telecommunications Act. That may blunt the legislators' drive to push regulators in a new direction.

Burns also will target the rollout of broadband data services, which he says is progressing far too slowly. The FCC has a legal responsibility to deregulate this market further, speeding the technology's deployment, he says.

"I am very concerned that if the commission does not alter its course?you and I will be long gone before most Americans have access to truly interactive broadband capability," Burns recently wrote in a letter to FCC chairman William Kennard.

The senator has not yet settled on specifics for these bills, however. "We expect that over the next couple of weeks there would be a rollout of legislation," spokesman Matt Raymond said.

Burns will introduce a bill calling for the privatization of the INTELSAT (International Telecommunications Satellite Organization) and INMARSAT (International Mobile Satellite Organization system) satellite systems.

Both are intergovernmental coops, and can not be sold unilaterally by the United States. But the country can exert considerable pressure, threatening to block INTELSAT's access to the U.S. market if the system is not privatized.

Several other issues will be addressed in the package of issues, including a new Internet privacy proposal. Burns will release details on the package at a press conference Friday morning.