WASHINGTON-House telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) last week proposed to fund digital wiretap implementation and Internet access for schools with $1.7 billion paid by wireless carriers and broadcasters for siting antennas on federal land during the next five years.
But the measure, which Tauzin is expected to introduce shortly, faces a number of obstacles such as being subject to multicommittee jurisdictions, differences between the FBI and the personal communications services industry over digital wiretap compensation and uncertainty over the estimated revenues from federal antenna siting.
As such, the wireless telecom industry was somewhat cautious in reacting to the draft bill.
“The chairman’s proposal alleviates some of the financial burdens placed on businesses and provides for a logical nexus between the monies raised from government siting leases and industry obligations,” said Jay Kitchen, president of the Personal Communications Industry Association. “However, it is important that we change the eligibility date for PCS carriers to receive (Communications Assistance and Law Enforcement Act) funding.”
Tauzin’s measure would earmark $500 million for reimbursing wireless and wireline carriers for network modifications required by CALEA, a 1994 law designed to help keep law enforcement eavesdropping capability on par with telecommunications technological advances.
The FBI told Congress recently that $500 million is needed to implement CALEA through 2002.
“It looks very promising,” said Tim Ayers, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. “It provides some important incentives to move ahead with siting, which is a major concern of the industry.”
With $500 million going to CALEA, the remainder of federal land antenna siting fees would help to defer the $2.25 billion cost of the congressionally mandated plan to wire schools, libraries and rural health care facilities to the information superhighway. The Federal Communications Commission earlier this month approved so-called universal service fund rules in keeping with that directive.
PCIA said it plans to appeal the FCC ruling because it hurts paging operators.
On the surface, the initiative appears to address a number of pressing issues in the telecommunications industry in general and the wireless industry, in particular. The FBI, which got industry and privacy advocates to sign onto CALEA in part by guaranteeing carriers they would be compensated for digital wiretap system modifications, has had problems securing appropriations since the law was enacted.
Under CALEA, $500 million was authorized for fiscal years 1995 through 1998.
But fiscal 1997 was the first year CALEA received funding, $100 million that is supposed to come from a combination of appropriations and year-end, excess dollars contributed by federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
But even that money did not come easy. It required a compromise with Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee and an FBI critic, who called for the FBI to submit to Congress a detailed CALEA implementation plan. That plan was submitted March 3.
Whether $1.7 billion can be raised from antenna siting on federal lands is unclear. CTIA’s Ayers said that 20 percent of the 125,000 PCS and cellular antennas going up will be sited on federal property. He said federal sites are fetching about $1,500 per month today, a figure that is expected to increase in coming years.
Overall, Ayers estimated the wireless telecom industry will raise $1.3 billion. Broadcasters ostensibly would make up the difference. On a related front, the Clinton administration proposed assessing TV broadcasters a spectrum fee to make up any shortfall in the $14.8 billion expected by 2002 from analog TV channel auctions.
Though Tauzin secured initial backing from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.), the multifaceted measure may need approvals by a plethora of other congressional panels.
And even if the bill is passed and signed by the president, administering the law could get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and other government conservationists. Those entities may resent having siting forced on them and about not receiving any revenue from tower leases.
“Without the ability to get part of the revenue, there’s no incentive to act on siting applications in a timely manner,” said Paul Rosa, an antenna siting consultant in the Washington, D.C., area.