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Guidance From Feds Sought on Technology


Vonage In Print News

Guidance From Feds Sought on Technology

August 28, 2005

By Bob Keefe

Corporate America usually is happiest when government stays out of its business.

But with the Internet changing the world in new and often confusing ways, a growing number of technology and telecom executives are suddenly calling for more leadership and direction from the federal government.

Bill Owens is one of them.

As chief executive of Nortel Networks, the former U.S. Navy admiral and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has watched as places like South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have become leaders in high-speed Internet access. The United States, meanwhile, has sunk to No. 16 in broadband availability.

Owens said he also worries that countries such as India and Pakistan have elevated technology development to a matter of national policy, while in Washington, it's barely an afterthought.

At an annual gathering of technology and government policy executives here, Owens said it's imperative that the government do more to ensure the continued evolution and security of the Internet and telecommunications in the United States.

"This is a big deal," he said during a break at the Progress and Freedom Foundation's Aspen Summit last week. "This is more important than steel policies or textile policies or banana policies."

Other tech and telecom executives said that what's most needed to help Americans get speedier Internet access and more choices in telephone, television and online service is for Congress and the White House to clarify telecommunications laws.

Not surprisingly, the different players want different rules that would benefit their industries.

Cable television companies want Congress to make it easier for them to offer telephone service, while protecting their TV franchise rights with local governments.

Telecom companies, on the other hand, want national legislation like a state law just enacted in Texas that would let them expand into Web-based TV more easily. "We need to get into ... a national set of rules here for new entrants" into the TV business, said SBC Communications executive Forrest Miller.

Wireless companies, meanwhile, want more freedom from the estimated 1,500 or so different agencies that regulate them across the country.

And newcomers like Internet phone company Vonage Holdings Corp. want to make sure they aren't shut out from the networks of cable and telecom companies. Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission fined a small North Carolina-based broadband provider for blocking access to Vonage, but Vonage claims blocking still takes place on other networks.

"What we need is a broadband bill of rights," said Vonage Chairman Jeffrey Citron.

Congress apparently is starting to listen to the call for more guidance — and not just because corporate America is complaining.

Confusing laws are keeping companies from investing in new technology for fear new legislation will come back to haunt them, some in Washington say. That could stall economic growth in general.

"There are so many people I talk to in my line of work who fully believe if our national and global economies are to experience a true economic renaissance, it's going to find its genesis in the communications arena," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, (R-Tenn.) said at the Aspen conference.

In June, Blackburn co-sponsored the Video Choice Act of 2005 that would make it easier for non-cable companies to get into the business of providing television programming. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is working on a similar bill that will likely be introduced within a few months.

"Our telecommunications services are rapidly changing and expanding," Blackburn said. "Congress can and should act to ensure our laws aren't standing in the way of innovation and competition."

In the Senate, meanwhile, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) proposed another sweeping bill in July.

Ensign's Broadband Consumer Choice Act of 2005 would eliminate the requirement that telephone companies and others get cable franchise agreements from local governments to sell television service. It also would make it illegal for broadband providers to block access to Internet phone companies or similar service providers.

Guidance has come from other corners of Washington, too, in recent months.

Both the FCC and the Supreme Court have decided that cable and telephone companies that have invested billions of dollars in upgrading their lines in recent years should not be forced to open them up completely to competing services.

On the other hand, the FCC this month adopted a policy that says consumers should be entitled to access any lawful Internet content or service, however they want.

Many in Washington and in the tech industry are beginning to think the only way to clear up the confusion is with a major updating of the landmark 1996 Telecom Act that laid out how phone and cable companies are supposed to do business.

"We do think it's time to take a fresh look at the Telecom Act," Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which represents cable companies.

Added SBC's Miller: "The world is a very different place than it was in 1996."

Of course, the cable and telephone industries are among the most deep-pocketed lobbying groups in Washington. Their political maneuvering to protect their turf will likely prevent any major changes to telecom regulations anytime soon, some Washington observers say.

"I don't think we'll see anything this year," said Roger Cochetti, group director for public policy at CompTIA, a trade group for computer makers. "I do think we'll see something in the next few years, however."

But just like the 1996 law was quickly outdated, he and others acknowledge, by that time the technology and communications landscape will likely be dramatically different — again.



 
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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

2Shipping and activation fees waived with 1-year agreement. An Early Termination Fee (with periodic pro-rated reductions) applies if service is terminated before the end of the first 12 months. Additional restrictions may apply. See Terms of Service for details.

HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See www.vonage.com/911 for details.

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