Wednesday, October 29, 2008

FCC chairman faces growing pressure to delay votes

WASHINGTON (AP) — Nearly 75 members of Congress are urging the head of the Federal Communications Commission to delay next week's vote on a proposal to overhaul key pieces of telecommunications regulation, arguing that the matter should get public review.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants to significantly reorder the complicated menu of fees that phone companies pay to connect calls with each other's networks. He advocates more uniform, lower rates.
The proposed changes are backed by the two largest phone companies, Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. They argue that existing rules are outdated and based on obsolete regulatory distinctions.
But the plan faces opposition from a broad coalition of competing carriers and rural phone companies, which fear it could erode the money they get for completing phone calls to their subscribers. And consumer advocates warn that it could lead to higher phone bills — particularly for rural customers — as phone companies seek to recover lost access charges from other sources.
Martin is also seeking major changes to the $7 billion-plus Universal Service Fund, a federal program that subsidizes telecom service in rural and poor communities through a surcharge on phone bills. Among other things, Martin would require carriers to use Universal Service money to invest in broadband networks in parts of the country that lack high-speed Internet connections.
Martin, one of three Republicans on the five-member FCC, has scheduled a vote on these issues for Nov. 4. A spokesman, Robert Kenny, pointed out that the FCC faces a Nov. 5 deadline, imposed by a federal court, for reforming part of the complex access fee system.
In a letter sent this week, however, 61 House members called on the chairman to release the proposal for public review and comment for at least two months.
"The public deserves the opportunity to provide fully informed comments, and the commission stands to gain by understanding the positions of all parties interested in its potentially sweeping decision," the letter says. It was written by Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher and Nebraska Republican Lee Terry, who have sponsored legislation to reform the Universal Service Fund.
That sentiment was echoed in two other letters that lawmakers sent to Martin this week, including one signed by 10 senators who expressed concerns that the details of Martin's proposal could end up hindering the construction of rural broadband networks.
Kenny, Martin's spokesman, said the chairman intends to move ahead with next week's vote on his broad reform proposal. Kenny added that while the plan has not been put out for public comment in its current form, most of the main elements have been debated in Washington for years.
Kenny also insisted that the proposal will not necessarily lead to higher phone bills and will help expand high-speed Internet connections in underserved parts of the country.
"Chairman Martin continues to work with the other commissioners on what we know is a very complex and complicated proposal that we hope will bring meaningful reform for the benefit of consumers," Kenny said.
Kenny said Martin also intends to move ahead with a vote on another contentious item on the Nov. 4 agenda: a proposal to open up unused portions of the television airwaves known as "white spaces" to deliver wireless broadband services.
Public interest groups and many of the nation's biggest technology companies, including Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., hope the plan will lead to universal, affordable broadband.
But the proposal has run into fierce opposition from the nation's big TV broadcasters, which argue using the fallow spectrum to deliver wireless Internet services could disrupt their over-the-air signals. Manufacturers and users of wireless microphones have also raised concerns about interference with audio systems at concerts and sporting events.
In recent days, a wide range of sports leagues, church leaders and performers — from Dolly Parton to Guns N' Roses — have written the FCC urging the vote to be delayed.

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