Three US Federal Communications Commissioners said laws governing telecommunications need to be revamped, but said the agency will do all it can under the current rules to encourage deployment of new technologies and services.
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The commission is faced with trying to regulate technologies that are not addressed in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which gives it few tools to deal with new issues as they come up, said commissioner Kathleen Abernathy at the Telecom '04 show in Las Vegas.
Abernathy said she would like to see congress rework the law, especially to provide a better definition of "advanced services", essentially broadband services that accommodate voice, video and data.
Another issue that needs more clarity is jurisdiction, as wireless communication is controlled by the federal government, cable mostly at the local level and telecommunications at both levels, she added.
The overlapping layers of jurisdiction cause uncertainty for service providers and raise their costs with the need for more lawyers, she said. Abernathy expects the FCC to examine jurisdiction issues over the next few months.
Michael Gallagher, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, cautioned against letting the industry get tied up waiting for major new legislation, pointing out that 1996 Act took 12 years to complete.
The danger is that telecommunications will end up like the electric power industry, with companies scared off by regulatory uncertainty from making investments, he said.
Commissioner Kevin Martin said he is most proud of the commission's work in defining how new fibre networks should be treated in terms of network sharing.
The FCC last year issued its Triennial Review Order, which generally left the new infrastructure alone in terms of requirements to "unbundle" network elements for use by competitors at regulated rates.
The details of that order have yet to be firmed up, according to some carriers, but the commission is set to consider requests by BellSouth and SureWest Communications for clarification on unbundling of FTTC (fibre to the curb) networks.
An executive of SBC Communications, another FTTC proponent, said he expected that decision to be favourable to his company's plans.
A Verizon Communications executive also said he believed the FCC is prepared to clarify the rules in favour of that carrier's FTTH (fibre to the home) plans.
The commissioners and Gallagher all said they want to see the industry form a consensus and come to the government with a unified position that can be used in reaching compromises on regulation. Other industries, such as aerospace and biotechnology, already have done this, Gallagher said.
"They come together and the government responds, and there's a clear agenda that's put before them," Gallagher said. "In telecom, there's an urgent need for it."
Carriers have already made strides in this direction, such as the Intercarrier Compensation Forum (ICF), said commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. The ICF has proposed changes to the system of payments between carriers to complete calls. It is critical to resolve issues so investment can go ahead, Adelstein said.
"We can't afford to continue to have this kind of uncertainty," he said.
Stephen Lawson writes for IDG News Service