YOU ARE AT:Archived ArticlesTELECOM BILL'S FATE OVERSHADOWS THE FCC'S FALL AGENDA

TELECOM BILL'S FATE OVERSHADOWS THE FCC'S FALL AGENDA

Washington – Clouding the Federal Communications Commision’s wireless agenda this fall is the uncertain fate of telecommunications reform legislation that could trigger scores of new rule makings with mandated deadlines costing $70 million to implement.

If Congress approves the legislation, the FCC would have to devote significant resources toward implementing new telecommunications laws and put intatives other ripe for consideration on the back burner.

But prospects for a bill passing that would encompass a comprehensive rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act appear to be dwindling in the waning weeks of the 103rd Congress. Legislators are scheduled to adjourn for the year early next month, but federal regulators cannot dismiss the outside chance that a bill will eke out of Congress, creating a huge workload for regulators.

Lingering industry squabbling over the telecommunications reform aside, lawmakers desperately want to get out of town as soon as possible to campaign before mid-term elections that are predicted to give Republicans the best chance in years of taking control of Congress away from Democrats.

“We think we’ll know in a month (about the legislation),” said Karen Brinkmann, an aide to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt responsible for wireless issues.

Regardless of what happens to information superhighway legislation this year, personal communications services will remain a high priority at the FCC in coming months.

The agency will auction 30 regional narrowband PCS licenses Oct. 26 and plans to put broadband PCS spectrum on the block in early December. Competitive bidding for PCS permits will continue into next year.

In the meantime, the FCC must complete work on broadband PCS licensing and auction rules. First-ever auctions for 10 nationwide narrowband PCS licenses in July netted more than $617 million for the U.S. treasury.

“I think that kind of urgency (to address lingering broadband PCS and auction issues) is going to be the marching order for the next few months,” said Thomas Stanley, chief FCC engineer.

Federal regulators also will step up efforts to find additional spectrum for unlicensed PCS and mobile satellite service as part of a deal to win approval for the revised broadband PCS band plan in June. Fifty megahertz, the first installment of the 200 megahertz of federal government spectrum transferred to the private sector, could come in handy for the FCC in that regard.

On the business front, the commission is poised to rule on the proposed $12.6 billion merger between AT&T Corp. and McCaw Cellular Communications Inc. Both parties want to ink a deal by month’s end.

Not as high on the agenda, but still controversial, is FCC consideration of broadband PCS pioneer preference licenses. Also, a decision has yet to be made on whether the pioneer’s program will be revised or eliminated. FCC lawyers will be busy preparing a defense for rulings that force PCS pioneer’s preference winners to pay for licenses.

Elsewhere, Hundt, under pressure from industry and Congress, has committed to completing rules for global low-earth orbit satellites that operate above 1 GHz.

Hundt will depart after the Sept. 19 FCC meeting for Kyoto, Japan, where he’ll meet with counterparts from around the world at an International Telecommunication Union meeting. From there, he will fly to Tokyo to meet with government and business leaders. During the week-long trip to Japan, the FCC chairman also will visit two high schools and observe demonstrations of the Global Information Infrastructure that he and Vice President Al Gore have touted.

The FCC will continue to craft rules for the Commercial Mobile Radio Service. To that end, federal regulators will consider what role equal access, interconnection, further forbearance from common carrier regulation and enhanced 911 capability should have in the new wireless regulatory environment.

It is not clear whether the commission intends to analyze wireless industry competition as it proposed to do in early formulation of CMRS rules. Moreover, the commission has petitions from eight states seeking to retain rate regulation of CMRS providers.

Specialized mobile radio also will occupy a special place on the FCC’s fall agenda. The commission wants to develop wide-area 800 MHz and 900 MHz SMR rules and to tailor auction guidelines to that service. The SMR industry sharply criticized the FCC for freezing new SMR application filings in early August, an action resulting from the commission’s Aug. 9 decision on CMRS regulatory structure.

And the FCC may finally get around to a decision on reconfiguring frequencies below the 512 MHz band. “We’re really going to try to get refarming out,” said Ralph Haller, chief of the Private Radio Bureau.

The agency also is examining whether telephone companies should be allowed to hold SMR licenses and whether wireless common carriers should be permitted to offer two-way radio dispatch service.

Haller will serve as a deputy chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau once the FCC reorganization is approved by the employees union and Congress. Regina Keeney, minority counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, will head the bureau. She is scheduled to take office in mid-October. The agency is close to rolling out the rest of the organizational realignment, according to Mary Beth Richards, special counsel to the commission for reinventing government.

On the administrative side, more money is on the way to hire additional employees in fiscal 1995. But the bad news for the wireless telecommunications industry is that it must pay for some of the additional 225 workers through higher user fees, perhaps double the level paid this year by applicants and licensees. The FCC’s $185.2 million budget for fiscal 1995, which begins Oct. 1, is underwritten by $116.4 million in regulatory user fees.

And now that new commissioners Rachelle Chong and Susan Ness have a few months of experience under their belts, the political dynamics of the five-member FCC will begin to play out more fully.

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