Congress takes aim at the FCC

Some influential Congress members are planning a run at the FCC next year and they may try to strip the agency of most of its regulatory powers, a congressman says.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
WASHINGTON--A group of influential members of Congress is gearing up for a run at the Federal Communications Commission next year, and it may even try to strip the agency of most of its regulatory powers, a congressman said today.

The efforts are being led on the House side by Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-Lousiana) and John Dingell (D-Michigan), and on the Senate side by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona). Dingell spoke today at the Practicing Law Institute's conference on Telecommunications Policy and Regulation, saying the FCC has undermined Congress's attempts to deregulate telecommunications markets.

"The FCC has spent much of these three years micromanaging the delivery of these services, instead of letting the market and consumers decide," he said. "Very frankly, [competition] has been derailed by the dithering of the FCC."

Dingell was one of the leaders in the effort to pass the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was intended to open both long distance and local telephone markets up to competition as soon as possible. But like some of the other key players in that debate, he has become disillusioned with the progress of his work.

Considerable rhetorical effort has been spent in the last year assigning blame for the slow progress of competition. Long distance companies blame the Baby Bells for protecting their markets. The Baby Bell companies say that potential competitors at the local level are cherry-picking profitable business customers and ignoring residential markets.

The administration has set its sights on the Baby Bells, saying they are spending too much time in litigation and not enough engaging with competitors. But many inside Congress say the FCC is at fault, and that they made a mistake in their 1996 act in trusting that regulators could manage the process of deregulation.

"We handed implementation over to the FCC," Dingell said. "Clearly there is a high probability we made a terrible mistake."

Proposals for change
Dingall and Tauzin are likely to take bipartisan aim at the regulatory agency next year. The pair will introduce a bill that would push the goals of the 1996 act forward, allowing local telephone companies to resell long distance service in their home territories almost immediately and removing any regulatory restrictions on telcos' ability to offer data services.

But Dingall said today he might go even further, introducing a bill that would strip much of the regulatory powers away from the FCC and give them to the Commerce Department. "We might leave some vestigial responsibilities," he said.

McCain is likely to work along a slightly different track, using next year's reauthorization of the FCC's budget and functions to attack the way it has implemented the Telecommunications Act, and also in part to reopen the act itself.

"We intend to look at each of the things the commission regulates," said Lauren Belvin, senior counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee and a McCain advisor. Any Senate legislation would likely come in a series of small bills targeted at individual issue areas, she said.

Politicians' unrest over the progress of competition has some of the big telcos worried, however. These companies don't want to see their regulatory environment thrown into uncertainty again even if the last three years have been marked by controversy and litigation.

"There is no surer way to bring the developments made today to a screeching halt than to take this act and reopen it," said Jim Cicconi, senior vice president of governmental affairs for AT&T.