Senator: FCC wrong on high-speed Net

An influential senator takes new aim at the agency, charging that it has not done enough to encourage the rollout of high-speed data services.

An influential senator has taken new aim at the Federal Communications Commission, charging that the agency has not done enough to encourage the rollout of high-speed data services across the country.

In a letter to FCC chairman William Kennard yesterday, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana) said the commission is failing in its responsibility to speed the deployment of advanced data services. As part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Congress directed the agency to cut through regulatory hurdles in order to smooth the rollout of high-speed Net access, Burns said.

"I am very concerned that the commission has misunderstood the purpose and intent behind [these provisions]," Burns wrote. "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."

As a part of the landmark 1996 legislation, Congress ordered the FCC to review the deployment of high-speed Net access technologies two and a half years after the law's passage. If services such as DSL (digital subscriber lines) and cable modems are not being rolled out in a "reasonably and timely manner," the law directs the FCC to take steps to speed the rollout.

The FCC is now in the middle of that review. Burns noted that fewer than 2 percent of U.S. households subscribe to high-speed Net access services, and said the FCC needs to help boost the sector by stepping back from regulation, not by adding new rules.

"Investment in advanced telecommunications capability should be a regulatory free zone," he wrote. No single telephone company has such a dominant stake in high-bandwidth Net access that regulation is needed, he added.

The letter also criticized a pending FCC proposal under which Baby Bell companies could offer DSL only though a financially separate subsidiary, or else be required to sell their service to competitors at discounted wholesale rates. The commission is expected to vote on that proposal by the end of the month.

Burns joined the Baby Bells in arguing this would slow the deployment of DSL, calling the proposal a "deplorable error."

"I fear that such a requirement will impose such inefficiency that it will limit the deployment of xDSL exclusively to businesses and high-income households," he wrote.

The senator's letter comes while he and a group of other congressional critics are readying a campaign that promises to put the FCC under a legislative microscope later this year. Burns is chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications, and will likely lead these efforts along with Commerce chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona).

According to the senator's spokesman, he intends to back an effort to scrutinize the commission's functions as a part of reauthorizing the agency's funding. This could include restructuring the agency if Congress decides it has not followed through on implementing the Telecommunications Act quickly enough.

"We haven't settled on any particular approach," said Matt Raymond, Burns's spokesman. "But that kind of underlies what's going on."

Similar efforts to tackle the FCC by looking at its funding died at the end of last year's congressional session.

Critics in the House, including Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana) and John Dingell (D-Michigan), also have talked about introducing bills scaling back the powers of the FCC, possibly even folding some of its functions into the Commerce Department.