Telecom Acts makes return appearance on Capitol Hill

Congress has introduced a bill that reopens the national debate over the electronic communications policy

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 — the last decade’s comprehensive revamping of American communications policy — was supposed to pave the way for a new era in digital technology. Instead, its loopholes stalled the DTV revolution and its vision missed the explosive growth of the Internet, wireless and broadband technologies.

Now Congress is trying to get it right again. Last week, Sen. John Ensign, (R-NV) introduced a bill that reopens the national debate over the electronic communications policy. This time the proposed legislation seeks to substantially deregulate broadband, satellite and cell phone services. The future of terrestrial broadcasting is missing from the debate.

Ensign’s 72-page measure states that local governments’ desire to provide broadband service to residents must allow an open bidding process in which private companies may participate. Also, companies such as Verizon and SBC, which would like to provide video, but have been stymied by the need to obtain permission from local governments, would receive a regulatory reprieve.

Underlying Congress’ revamping of the 1996 law, which could take a year to complete, are competing philosophies of how the government should treat telecommunications providers. Are consumers better served through price setting by regulators — or by letting competition flourish? Is it wiser to mandate that companies permit rivals to use their networks, or will that discourage investment in fiber links?

Ensign’s bill specifies that neither state regulators nor the FCC may set rates and prices for communications service. It also says they may not require fiber owners to provide their rivals with access to facilities. Direct-to-home satellite service would also be immune from price regulation.

While his proposal, called the Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act, is likely to meet opposition, it won applause from Verizon.

The bill also mandates that telephone companies must continue to provide access to their copper wires on commercially reasonable terms, and broadband providers shall not willfully block Web sites unless the restrictions are in place because of bandwidth limits. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service also can’t be blocked — a problem that’s already arisen a few times.

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