WASHINGTON-This may be the last year San Francisco will serve as the venue for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association’s still-growing annual convention and exposition. Every square foot of the huge Moscone Center has been booked for weeks; the waiting list is long. Show-goers this week will have to run to one of the 65 hotels housing the conference to attend myriad industry seminars. Success has its price.

Looking for new and larger locations from which to disseminate the wireless word is only part of CTIA President Tom Wheeler’s burgeoning bailiwick these days, and he is changing with the times. Instead of focusing on cellular as the be-all-and-end-all technology, during the past two years Wheeler quietly has been adapting his speech patterns, referring to “wireless” instead of “cellular” service to make sure that new personal communications services, enhanced specialized mobile radio, two-way paging, and satellite voice and data providers know immediately that they will be welcomed into the association’s fold.

Certainly, pending regulatory and legislative issues morph all technologies into one, and Wheeler is promoting his now and future constituents’ views regarding antenna siting, auctions, spectrum policy and competition heavily on Capitol Hill, at the Federal Communications Commission, and at the state and local level. And Wheeler touts the success of CTIA’s Web the way most business information will be shared in the future. More than 8,000 people visit the site each week, averaging 10 hits for information each.

Always quick with either an anecdote or a Reader’s Digest notable quote, Wheeler spoke with RCR’s Washington reporter Debra Wayne just prior to this week’s CTIA extravaganza about continuing problems with moratoria, his days as a cable guy and wireless’ “dance with the elephants.”

RCR: Regarding CTIA’s recent letter to the FCC on state and local moratoria on siting issues, there are those who say many of the instances cited by you were not true moratoria but only a stepping back to look at the issue. How did CTIA compile its data? And how do you expect the FCC to react?

Wheeler: The issue is not to split hairs on whole or partial or a seven-and-two-thirds moratorium. The issue is can local governments act in such a way as to impede the rollout of this national service. The answer is that some have, and we have been trying to focus attention on those.

Obviously one of the favorite methods of those who want to has been moratoriums or, worse, rolling moratoriums. Yes, they come in different flavors but the basic concept is the same.

We have several initiatives we’ve proposed to the commission. We’ve asked for, in essence, a declaratory ruling insofar as generic types of obstruction of antenna siting. They came back with dispatch, did an excellent job responding and responding quickly. Their letter not only has provided guidance to specific cities and carriers, but that letter was filed in an amicus brief we filed in California last month on a specific lawsuit involving AirTouch (Communications Inc.), which could have national ramifications.

Another thing we have done is to ask the commission to ban moratoria, and it is clearly within their power to do so, not only in Section 704 but in Section 332 and other sections of the act. The Congress has said, `We won’t tell municipalities where to put towers for the antennas but we will tell them that they cannot prohibit them.’ And what a moratorium does is have the effect of a prohibition without being a prohibition, and something has to be done about that.

We are very encouraged by FCC Chairman Reed Hundt’s recent indication of his willingness to write to the cities that have moratoria and to address to them his concern over the impact they are having on the buildout of wireless telecommunications.

The third prong of the whole siting thing is how will municipalities use antenna sites to make more money. Florida was the frontrunner but it’s nothing new. I came out of the cable business, and that’s how cable franchising was done. I’ll never forget one day when a fellow called me and said he’d `just bid a fire station.’ He promised to build a new fire station if he got the franchise because the mayor had called him in, told him he needed a new fire station and couldn’t raise taxes to build one, and whoever told him they could build one would have the best chance to get the franchise. If you go back to 1909, a book called The Shame of the Cities touched on the awarding of streetcar franchises; it’s always about the new system in town and how can money be made from it. I understand the pressures that local government officials are under but we need to work out a rapprochement as to how we can live together because all this ends up doing is denying the benefits to the constituents.

RCR: Instead of going to the commission about this, wouldn’t something have more clout if you got it from Congress, which mandated antenna siting in the first place?

Wheeler: There is a significant body of belief up there in which they thought they were implementing a policy that said, `We won’t tell you where to put them and you won’t stop them.’ You’ll see some hearings on this topic in the coming months, and that will help to send a message. But before we get too heavy into city-bashing, it’s the old 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the cities are not a problem, but others have been quite untoward in their response. The problem is that when you’re building a national network, you can’t build just 80 percent.

RCR: How is CTIA working with conservationists regarding siting? Is compromise going to happen?

Wheeler: Last month, several members of the staff met with members of the National Park Service in North Carolina to work with them on how antenna siting can be done so as to help them continue to fulfill their mission of environmental preservation and to provide safety and service to people in their locations. There are all kinds of ways of doing it. What is not good is when the Park Service says, `We already have one wireless service provider, and we don’t need any more.’ Well, no, that’s not quite what the rules said.

Congress said, first, that there will be more and they have to work their way through that. Again, I think this is an issue that requires dogged perseverance and good faith on both sides. What we’re trying to do is build a bridge that allows both parties-the Park Service and the carriers-to work together in joint missions in which they each attain their goals.

RCR: What do you think of Rep. Edward Markey’s (D-Mass.) recent letter regarding the possibility of the FCC awarding spectrum to the carrier that can provide the lowest-cost service rather than just auctioning more wireless spectrum to the highest bidder? Could such a plan work?

Wheeler: I think Ed Markey’s idea certainly is one that is not without merit. It is not dissimilar to what Israel has done, giving licenses to whoever could provide the cheapest service. However, we’re at a point where we need to have some stability in the way we handle spectrum allocation and assignment. It appears as though there is a constant `idea du jour’ about whether policy is driven by the budget or by trusting in the marketplace.

What we need is some certainty here. We may have auctioned off an additional 128 megahertz of spectrum but that doesn’t mean that they’re operational yet. It is terribly important that the people who put up tens of billions of dollars be allowed to operate in the environment in which they invested and that the rules don’t get changed in mid-stream. Mr. Markey’s idea is worthy of consideration and is of merit. But to everything there is a season, and let’s have a season of solidity for awhile.

RCR: On that note, with the amount of wireless spectrum now in play and not counting paging, specialized mobile radio, private radio and satellite services, is it time to stop for a while just to let things settle, to allow networks to build out and com
pete? Should some of the spectrum be put in reserve for services that may get to be wildly successful down the road and may have to buy some expansion property?

Wheeler: What we don’t want to do is have a constantly sliding set of priorities and rules. This is not an issue of stopping making spectrum available; it’s an issue of having a common set of policies. The role of government is to do for the market what the market cannot do for itself.

The current fad in government is to do nothing and throw it all to the anarchy of the market. I am a strong believer in market forces, but players have to know the basic four corners of the environment in which they are expected to exist. What the government needs to have is a spectrum policy not determined by the tyranny of the dollar. That begs the question of set-asides, of reserves. They would be part of an entire package of governmental instructions to the marketplace.

We have gone from a period where the government micromanaged everything that happened in a marketplace to the other extreme of the government saying, `we’ll do nothing to allocate spectrum to a market.’ We’ve got to stop in between.

RCR: Is any of the CTIA constituency complaining that there is too much competition out there?

Wheeler: No. What we’re trying to do is focus on the big tent where we can address the issues common to everyone so that all parties can go out into the marketplace and beat each other’s brains out.

RCR: On a different note, now that CTIA’s research contract with WTR soon will be entering its fifth and final year, has an agreement to indemnify researchers been signed yet. And what do you expect to be accomplished during this last year?

Wheeler: We are probably about 90 percent there right now. The outrage of this whole process is that strike lawyers are able to influence the speed in which the research is done by suing people who make the research decisions and threatening them. I don’t think it takes a Rhodes scholar to figure out why they do that. They do that because they’d rather go to a jury with the ability to harangue on innuendo rather than being confronted with scientific facts. Therefore, as long as they can slow down the development of that definitive scientific investigation, it works to their advantage. I am offended that the industry-funded research effort would have to spend so much time on legal issues rather than on scientific issues, and that you can’t get to the scientific issues until you have jumped through myriad legal hoops. I am hopeful that, working with the appropriate federal agencies, that we should be able to announce something in the very near future.

Regarding the fifth year, it may run slightly over to maybe five and one-half years because of the strike lawyers and the delays. The questions people would like to see answered have to do with long-term exposure effects.

RCR: Why has the whole issue of driver safety reared its ugly head again? Didn’t the American Automobile Association decide several years ago that drivers with cellular phones in the car were not any more likely to cause accidents as those who do not?

Wheeler: It’s an interesting study in that it doesn’t say that people using cell phones cause accidents. It is a study that says, `What is the relationship between people who have had accidents within 10 minutes of having made a cellular phone call and those who have just had accidents.’

There’s also another study that compares smokers and having accidents. It found that smokers are more prone to be in automobile accidents than nonsmokers. This is why we have said for the last several years that driving safely is your first responsibility. We continue to work with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, with AAA and with the National Safety Council to put out the public safety announcements with William Shatner that run in drive time saying, `Driving safely is your first responsibility.’

RCR: So what is the association planning to do in addition to what already has been done?

Wheeler: It is a legitimate and important issue that people realize that driving safely is their first responsibility. What we have been trying to do first is to make people realize that and then help them understand the benefits of having a wireless phone in the car. It’s an issue not much different than having a radio or a tape deck in the car. It’s a question of how you do it responsibly.

RCR: What has CTIA been doing lately regarding the FCC’s trilogy of pending rulemakings-interconnection, access charges and universal service?

Wheeler: We were very pleased at what happened at the Eighth Circuit in January. The last 10 minutes of the arguments were set aside for wireless, and our attorney gets up and starts making his wireless pitch and the senior judge says, `You’ve been quite convincing and you can sit down.’ That, hopefully, is a positive sign. We may end up with the court deciding what we have asked the commission to do all along, and that is to recognize the uniqueness of commercial mobile radio services. It might actually end up being a win/win solution for CMRS and local exchange carriers.

On the access issue, we are interested, but that’s a long-distance/local carrier thing. On universal service, it is clear that we will have an obligation. It is clear that we should have access to the universal service funds if we are the carrier of last resort. Beyond that, it becomes less clear and we are part of the dance of the elephants, if you will, with the titans of the long-distance world and the local-carrier world. We want to make sure we don’t get trampled. We also want assurance that when we begin providing service and have access to the universal service fund, that we continue to be unregulated by the state even though the state makes those funding decisions. We’re focusing on the issues inside the issues.

RCR: With the new Congress sitting on the Hill now, have you had to change lobbying efforts? Is it still business as usual?

Wheeler: What we’re looking at are committees headed by individuals who are not new to the committees and the issues are not new. In that sense, there is some stability. I do think the change between this Congress and the last Congress is that, for the last several congresses, they have been looking to affirmatively do something and this time they are looking to analyze and observe and to try and send signals regarding past actions. This is the year when the electric utility lobbyists will be all over the Hill; that’s going to be the issue of the day.

RCR: Any thoughts about Telecom Act-Year One?

Wheeler: I’m fascinated when I read everyone’s comments regarding the first year. What is everyone so surprised about? The heavy lifting has been left to the commission and the courts, and until that heavy lifting is done, you aren’t going to see a lot of changes perceptible to the consumer. What has happened, however, is that people are preparing for the time when the heavy lifting has been completed and they know what the new rules will be. There have been strategic realignments and mergers. And I don’t know why anyone is surprised at that.

RCR: Are you going to be here forever? You’ve had a stint with the cable industry, you’ve been here for awhile and you’re a visible man in Washington.

Wheeler: I have a very succinct answer for that-no. We have a joke around here that if you don’t get a job offer every six months, you’re fired, so we’ll see what we will see. I’m having a great time around here. It’s a wonderful place to be with a terrific group of people.


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