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FCC wants to promote competition, chairman asserts

Mon, 03/04/2002 - 7:00pm
Beatrice E. Garcia

Copyright 2002 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service

The Miami Herald…03/05/2002

From LexisNexis

Despite some early signs that the U.S. economy could be on the mend, a good portion of the telecommunications industry is still in the throes of a severe contraction.

That was clear at the 21st annual conference of the Competitive Telecommunications Association, or CompTel, which got under way in Miami Beach Sunday with roughly 2,500 representatives of phone and Internet services companies. Last year's meeting in Orlando, Fla., attracted some 4,300.

Douglas Hanson, the outgoing chairman of CompTel, blamed the attendance drop and consolidation in the industry on both the economic downturn and the inability of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to stimulate more competition in the telecom sector.

Michael K. Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and Monday's keynote speaker, said he's amazed that the perception persists among industry groups that the FCC isn't pro-competition.

"FCC has never wavered on its commitment to competition. It's not true," said Powell, who was appointed chairman last January by President Bush. Powell has served on the commission since late 1997.

Competition "remains a critical objective of this administration," he added.

Powell said that while the FCC must work within the statutes passed by Congress, he has "empowered" the agency's enforcement division, increasing fines levied against the Bell companies for anti-competitive behavior and hiring five top law firms to assist the agency in its enforcement cases.

The passage last week of a bill by the House of Representatives that would allow the regional Bell companies to sell long-distance Internet services, was very much on the minds of executives attending this 3-day meeting.

Although the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act, sponsored by Rep. Bill Tauzin (R-La.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), appears to have strong opponents in the U.S. Senate, Hanson said CompTel's members "need to keep up the fight" to convince senators and the president that the legislation would allow the Bell companies to maintain their regional telephone monopoly.

The 1996 law lets the Bell companies — BellSouth, Verizon Communications, SBC Communications and Qwest Communications — provide long-distance service once they have demonstrated their local markets are open to competition.

The Bell companies argue that the Tauzin-Dingell bill gives them the leeway they need to invest in the expansion of broadband networks.

However, Russell Frisby, CompTel's president, argued that while 80 percent of the U.S. household have access to broadband service today, just about 12 percent are taking it because the cost remains high and there are no "killer applications" to warrant the speed.

Many consumers still use the Internet for e-mail and surfing, he said.

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