FCC to gain muscle under Clinton plan

January 18, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

When Vice President Al Gore unveiled the Clinton administration's telecommunications reform initiative last week, it received mostly glowing reviews, but little noted were the broad new powers it would entrust to one of Washington's most-criticized agencies.

In its policy statement outlining its blueprint for 21st century telecommunications, the administration lists case after case in which the Federal Communications Commission would make critical decisions as the nation moves toward a fully competitive telephone system and attempts to extend an "information superhighway" into every American home.

Under the program, the already potent FCC would emerge as a superpower among Washington's seemingly endless swarm of alphabet-soup regulatory agencies. Its five members could become some of the most powerful people in Washington -- guiding the future of a $1 trillion-dollar industry that is expected to represent one-sixth of the American economy by the end of 1996.

"The regulatory burden for the FCC will increase substantially," said Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., one of Capitol Hill's leading experts on telecommunications. With the increased role communications will play in the national economy, a more powerful FCC is "inevitable," he said.

That aspect of the plan, which has otherwise won broad support from both the telephone industry and user groups, has raised concerns that the administration might be "punting" tough policy decisions to a nonelected agency. The administration's broad principles have widespread support, but detailed guidelines on such hot topics as defining universal service can quickly turn friends into foes.

The White House has not yet drafted specific legislation, so it is not certain how broad the FCC's discretion would be. Mr. Gore left little doubt last week that the administration is inclined to give the FCC wide latitude. In effect, the administration appears willing to make a leap of faith that future FCC members will share its vision of an information-rich society.

Under the proposal, the FCC would gain new authority to pre-empt state regulation of which companies can provide telephone service and how much they can charge. The commission would receive authority to redefine which of a burgeoning array of phone, video and data services must be made available to every household at low cost. It would be permitted, after five years, to suspend a ban that would prevent telephone companies from acquiring cable companies in the same service area. And it would be allowed to stop regulating a company whenever it determined that its market was sufficiently competitive.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Gore explained that by handing broad discretion to an "expert agency," the policy would remain "flexible and adaptable" enough to adjust regulations in an era of rapidly changing technology.

Michael Wirth, chairman of the Department of Mass Communications at the University of Denver, said it was entirely appropriate for Congress to spell out broad principles and leave the details to the FCC.

"It would be a major error for Congress to spell it out. I don't think Congress has a clue," he said.

But advocates for consumers, business users and state regulators are concerned that too much power would be handed to a commission whose members often come from the telecommunications industry. Some have returned to lucrative jobs in the industry after their terms expired.

"Do we really want an agency that has very little accountability to be making all these decisions in the Information Age?" asked Jeffrey A. Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education.

Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America, urged the administration to write specific guidelines into its legislative package. "They basically punt everything to an agency that has not served the consumer well," he said.

But the FCC's new chairman, Reed Hundt, denies the administration is ducking the hard issues.

"This isn't a punt. This is an intentional handoff to an agency that's being charged with running with the ball over a long period of time," he said.

The proposed shift of power to the FCC from state bodies such as Maryland's Public Service Commission has ruffled some feathers at the state level, however.

Michelle Harris, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, criticized a provision of the plan that would let telephone service providers that meet certain conditions choose to be regulated by the FCC alone. The FCC, she said, is too far from the consumer and has too much on its plate to handle that task.

Tom Norris, American Telephone & Telegraph Co.'s vice president for government affairs, said more resources would not be enough. "There's a limit to the amount of policy-making five individuals will do in a reasonable way," he said, suggesting that the FCC back out of some areas it currently regulates -- such as AT&T's rates.

But Mr. Hundt, a close friend of President Clinton and Mr. Gore, says the FCC is ready to take on any new tasks that Congress assigns it. "To the degree that anyone wants to invest responsibility in us, we are going to do our damnedest to discharge it," he said.

Far from feeling stressed out, Mr. Hundt says the FCC's members and staff are thrilled that they could play an important role in making sure the national information infrastructure serves the needs of health care and education.

"It's an exciting time to be at the FCC," he said. "I think everyone feels a spring in their step as they go to work."

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