The confirmations of all four nominees to the Federal Communications Commission were held up today by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Montana), who wants the agency to revamp telephone and online "universal service" rates for rural areas of the country.
In a statement issued late today, Burns said he has temporarily blocked Senate approval of the nominees because he is "concerned" with FCC chairman nominee William Kennard's position on universal service. Under provisions mandated by last year's federal telecommunications reform, the FCC is required to provide schools and low-income and rural areas with advanced phone and Net services, which is subsidized by states, the federal government, consumers, and telecommunications companies.
According to Burns, the current commission's plan has put 75 percent of the governmental burden on states, which he claims could lead to higher phone rates. Although Kennard promises to keep rates low for local phone and cable service, as the FCC's general counsel, he worked on the plan that was approved this May.
"I am working with congressional leaders and Mr. Kennard to resolve these concerns quickly," Burns said in the statement. "I strongly believe that it was not the intent of Congress that the structure of the universal service fund lead to higher phone rates. A 25-75 split is unacceptable."
Burns indicated one solution he may support is an appropriations bill amendment introduced by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), which calls for the FCC to reexamine whether Internet service providers should contribute to universal service. The Stevens amendment also requires that ISPs pay a per-minute access charge to phone companies for connecting ISP customers to the Net via telco switch centers.
The online industry successfully fought the same provisions earlier this year when the agency held hearings on universal service.
If his amendment is not passed, according to sources, Stevens also has threatened to block the nominations, which require unanimous Senate consent to conduct a vote for confirmation.
On October 8, a Senate committee approved Kennard's nomination, along with those of Michael Powell, chief of staff of the Justice Department's antitrust division; Harold Furchtgott-Roth, chief economist for the House Commerce Committee; and Gloria Tristani, a member of the New Mexico Corporation Commission.