FCC to telecom gear makers: Regulate yourselves

Twenty-five years after the Federal Communications Commission began certifying phones and modems, the agency wants the industry to set performance and quality standards and monitor itself.

3 min read
WASHINGTON--Federal regulators are on the verge of doing something rarely seen in this town: handing their oversight authority back to a regulated industry.

Meta Group says that in the short term, the FCC rule changes mean more choices for wireless customers.

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At its monthly meeting Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to privatize the certification process for telecom equipment found in people's homes and businesses--namely phones, fax machines and modems, including high-speed models.

While the privatization involves a relatively simple procedure that occurs outside the public's view, FCC officials clearly are hoping that the telecom community, the public and most particularly a hostile Congress will see this as a signal that the agency is serious about deregulation.

It appears the agency has decided "we should get out of that business altogether," one official said.

With the passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1996 the FCC was assigned a wide variety of deregulatory tasks, including performing reviews every other year on each of its rules to see if any were out of date.

The rule regarding the technical requirements for so-called customer-premise equipment, known rather unimaginatively as "Part 68," dates back to 1975, when Ma Bell's Western Electric was the dominant manufacturer of phones.

Although the technical requirements vary widely depending on the device and its intended function, the FCC regulates a variety of consumer devices, such as residential phones and Internet modems.

Since the 1970s, however, a wide variety of manufacturers have entered the market. In addition, the Baby Bells have been vigilant in communicating the technical standards needed to connect equipment with their networks.

Thus, when the FCC's Common Carrier Bureau reviewed its customer-premise authority, it decided the rule should probably go.

Which way out?
Still unclear is exactly what form the privatization will take. Officials listed several possibilities the commissioners could approve.

For setting standards, the FCC could select an industry body or accept the findings of any recognized standards body, such as the technical committee of the Telecom Industry Association (TIA) or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

As for certifying individual pieces of equipment, in July the FCC approved as an alternative to agency certification some industry groups known as Telecommunications Certifications Bodies (TCB). The TCBs could take over the responsibilities entirely, or manufacturers could simply present evidence from an accredited laboratory that they comply with existing standards.

The commission won't be completely out of the loop. One official said that in all likelihood, the FCC would continue to set general guidelines for, say, equipment that can't cause harm to the phone network. Then the industry standards bodies could come up with the specifications to fit that guideline.

If there were a problem with compliance, the commission would still have the means to step in.

The FCC will continue to be involved with wireless devices such as phones and pagers, which are regulated in the Wireless Bureau under different rules.

In defense of the commission's privatizing wired phones and not wireless ones, a commission official noted that there's a longer history of industry compliance in the wired world. "There's a proven track record" there that hasn't yet developed for wireless technology, the official said.