D.C. NOTEBOOK

To comprehend the scope of what happened (and didn’t happen) on Capotol Hill last week, one needs to appreciate history. For history repeated itself. Some new ground was broken, too. Call this cahpter “A Tale of Two Toms.”

Tom Wheeler, who in 1993 as president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association convinced lawmakers to send state regulators out to pasture and balance the federal regulatory playing field for commercial wireless carriers, pulled off another lobbying coup during the House subcommittee markup of telecommunications reform legislation. This time, Wheeler helped lawmakers agree to deregulate wireless at the local level and fought off a move to undo landmark legislative gains achieved two years ago.

He didn’t do it alone though. Wheeler got help from, among others, Tom Wanley, whose 18 years as aide to former Rep. Phillip Sharpe, D-Ind., is paying nifty dividends these days in his new role as director of congressional affairs at the Personal Communications Industry Association.

The two Toms artfully persuaded the House telecommunications panel that state and local government officials should participate in their surrender of unilateral zoning authority insofar as regulation of cellular and personal communications services antenna towers.

Committee staffers initially laughed off the suggestion that Congress pre-empt local zoning oversight.

Industry lobbyists got sympathy for their plight and were told politely to come back when they had a better idea. Which they did. Here’s the deal: Have the Federal Communications Commission establish a negotiated rulemaking committee comprised of local and state officials and industry representatives. Let them develop national siting guidelines.

In the big scheme of things, antenna tower siting is small potatoes in the telecommunications reform bill spearheaded by House Commerce Committee chief Thomas Bliley, R-Va. But to the wireless telecommunications industry, it has been one of their loudest talking points in recent months.

Another industry goal has been to keep competitive commercial wireless carriers out of the way of common carrier regulations being crafted for monopoly Bell telephone companies. Both House and Senate telecommunications bills make such a carve-out for commercial mobile radio service providers.

But it all could have come unglued (and still might) in a one paragraph, a cellular resale amendment offered by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, which was subsequently withdrawn after intervention by Wheeler moments before the measure came up. Upon returning from a break for a House vote and lunch, Wheeler quietly engaged Jack Fields, chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, Edward Markey, D-Mass., ranking minority panel member, and even Barton himself about the amendment that would be brought up next.

After several lawmakers voiced reservations about the measure, softened by Fields’ promise to study the issue further, Barton took the amendment off the table. My guess is neither the amendment nor anything resembling it will see daylight at this week’s full committee markup or that it will be handily defeated if Barton pursues it.

Now there are two Tom Terrifics preaching new age wireless gospel.

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