Telecom industry cheers Ensign's bill to rewrite act

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) introduced legislation yesterday to rewrite parts of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, generating  praise from telephone and cable companies.

The bill would help telephone companies offer video and other broadband services, which some businesses believe they cannot do now without jumping through regulatory hurdles.  

Ensign’s measure starts what has become an anticipated debate about how to update or revise the decade-old telecommunications laws that some senators and policy analysts consider outdated and cumbersome. For the past several months, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Sen. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), the panel’s ranking Democrat, have been holding “listening sessions” on how to revise the 1996 act. But no legislation had been introduced until yesterday.  

“Success will depend on what kind of support it is going to get from the telecom community and from the administration,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and a co-sponsor of Ensign’s bill.

And Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), who has emerged as a consensus building Democrat this Congress and is aiming to play a role in how the 1996 laws are revised, said, “I appreciate Senator Ensign’s huge effort, but I look forward to seeing how this unfolds. I am not ready to sign on.”

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) told reporters that issues in the bill needed to be “worked through” and that the bill conflicted with some of his views.

Under Ensign’s plan, Verizon and SBC Communications, which have been struggling to get into the video business, would not have to get permission from state and local officials to do so.

Telephone companies are trying to figure out different ways to expand their profits at a time when profits from long-distance calls are dropping.

“This will provide much-needed clarity as SBC invests in next-generation broadband services,” Tim McKone, senior vice president for federal relations at SBC, said in a statement.

At the beginning of the year, lobbyists had hoped they could pass legislation by the end of the year. Now that goal seems unlikely.

McCain told reporters earlier this month that there was no way a bill could be agreed upon before year’s end.

Pryor said signing a bill into law this year is unlikely but he expected “a very busy fall.”

“What Ensign is offering is language for folks to consider. We’re starting a dialogue,” said a GOP Senate aide involved in the debate. “Stevens will be looking at different bills, considering which direction he wants to go.”

The legislation, however, does not address who will continue to contribute to the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes phone service in rural parts of the country. Senate aides and lobbyists said Stevens and Inouye would address what to do with the fund, which could face financial shortfalls in the future as fewer long distance phone companies contribute to it.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) is also working on legislation to shore up the fund.