WASHINGTON-Key wireless initiatives are caught in the grip of legislative inertia that has paralyzed Congress and the White House and shaken the foundations of both institutions in the aftermath of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (R-Ga.) ethics violations and the Clinton administration’s link to the unraveling Democratic fund-raising scandal.

Among the pressing matters the wireless industry wants Congress to address this year are digital wiretap compliance, cloning, encryption, spectrum auction management, public safety communications, privacy, antenna siting, universal service, franchise taxation and international satellite system reform.

But four months into the new year that began with rambling rhetoric about bipartisan cooperation, each side is still waiting for the other to take the lead on the budget and other legislative priorities.

As a result, the GOP-led Congress and the Democratic White House have little to show.

In the meantime, the wireless industry is seeking relief from Congress on a number of important issues.

Republicans, hearing increasing grumbling about the “do-nothing-Congress,” now appear to have given up trying to make nice with the White House and have signaled they’re ready to move forward without President Clinton.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) last week said he might abandon negotiations with the White House to craft a balanced budget bill and a tax cut plan, and instead work with a bipartisan coalition of congressional members to come up with legislation.

Lott and the White House have yet to agree on filling empty seats at the Federal Communications Commission. Lott is reported to have sent the White House two names: House Commerce Committee chief economist Harold Furchtgott-Roth for the GOP seat left vacant by former Commissioner Andrew Barrett’s resignation a year ago and a yet to be disclosed Democratic candidate.

FCC General Counsel William Kennard is said to have the inside track for the Democratic seat that opens when venerable Commissioner James Quello leaves later this year. His term expired last June.

But Christopher McLean, an aide to Sen. Bob Kerry (D-Neb.), has support from rural lawmakers and may still be in the running.

Commissioner Rachelle Chong, a moderate Republican who has been lobbying aggressively for reappointment, is not supported by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain backs Michael Powell, a Republican lawyer in the Justice Department’s antitrust division and son of retired Gen. Colin Powell.

But Lott is not believed to be anxious to rush through a Democrat in a package of FCC nominees because it could benefit FCC Chairman Reed Hundt by giving him a majority block of votes. Hundt and Commissioner Susan Ness, both Clinton Democrats, have been held in check because Quello, though a Democrat, differs with Hundt on various telecom issues.

Despite the inactivity on Capitol Hill, the wireless industry remains optimistic about prospects for legislation in coming months.

“I think Congress will become more active,” said Rob Cohen, congressional liaison for the Personal Communications Industry Association.

Most recently, PCIA has been pressing Congress and federal regulators to create a new universal service fund that does not discriminate against wireless carriers.

In a Senate hearing last month, PCIA President Jay Kitchen proposed that new wireless carriers who bought licenses from the government not be forced to pay into the universal service fund for five years.

“This new and robust competition in telephony … will be stifled if new entrants, who have already spent billions at auctions, and face the need to invest billions more in the build-out of their networks, are further burdened with universal service fund contributions,” said Kitchen.

Cohen said PCIA is confident it can kill a Clinton administration proposal to auction toll free 888 telephone numbers. “We’re very active on that front.” The White House last year tried unsuccessfully to raise $700 million from 888 telephone number sales. The White House wants to generate the the same amount of money from an 888 phone number auction in fiscal 1998.

PCIA and the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association have been lobbying Congress to change the date for determining which telecom carriers are reimbursed for making network modifications to comply with the 1994 digital wiretap law.

The way the law is written, carriers that install or deploy telecom facilities after Jan. 1, 1995, are not eligible for compensation from the federal government.

As a result, all new personal communications services systems and possibly cellular systems that convert to digital technology after that date will not be paid for technical changes to networks that better enable law enforcement to conduct authorized eavesdropping.

Carriers are supposed to be in compliance with FBI digital wiretap capability requirements by Oct. 25, 1998, yet carriers don’t know what those guidelines are because the FBI has yet to finalize them.

“We realize that privacy, cloning and encryption issues are all interrelated and we’re looking for a way to address them in a coordinated fashion even though those issues fall under the jurisdiction of different committees,” said Jonas Neihardt, director of congressional affairs for CTIA.

CTIA has played the leading role in bringing to Congress’ attention loopholes in current law that enable scanners to be tuned to 800 MHz cellular phone frequencies. The trade group also has been working closely with law enforcement to stamp out illegal cloning of cellular phones, a huge problem that costs carriers many millions of dollars every year.

Neihardt said there’s a lot of interest on wireless privacy and illegal phone cloning on Capitol Hill and he points out that pending legislation appears to exempt wireless data from electronic commerce fees.

Indeed, House telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) already held one hearing on wireless privacy and more are expected in advance of legislation this year.

But he acknowledged that a slowdown in Congress would reduce the number of legislative vehicles available to the wireless industry.

Right now, the most promising opportunities for wireless legislation include appropriations, authorizations and budget reconciliation bills.

It appears highly unlikely Congress will attempt a technical corrections bill that makes revisions to the telecommunications act of 1996, at least this year.

Alan Shark, president of the American Mobile Telecommunications Association, welcomes the lackluster movement in Congress.

“They have totally screwed up a competitive industry,” said Shark, referring to 1993 legislation that made specialized mobile radio carriers subject to the same common carrier rules as paging, cellular and PCS services and that prompted the FCC to freeze SMR licensing in August 1994.

The FCC is expected to rule soon on auction 800 MHz SMR licenses.

“The fact that these folks can’t get their act together is fine with me,” Shark remarked.

Still, Shark said AMTA is pushing for more spectrum-10 megahertz for SMRs out of the TV channels 60-69 reallocation-and supports efforts to assess spectrum lease fees on private wireless frequencies in lieu of assigning permits by auction.

Congress and the administration want to expand the FCC’s auction authority-a move that could make private wireless spectrum open season for auctions.

Under the 1993 auction law, competitive bidding is limited to subscription-based commercial wireless services like paging and mobile telephone service.

The FCC has raised $22 billion from wireless license auctions during the past three years.

McCain, meanwhile, plans to introduce spectrum management legi
slation in response to criticism that the hefty infusion of spectrum and high volume of auctions in recent years could be hurting competition and redu
cing the value of the airwaves being sold.


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