A Comcast executive in charge of the company’s rapidly growing digital phone service last Tuesday endorsed a House bill designed to make it more difficult for telephone giants like AT&T and Verizon to obtain deregulation from the Federal Communications Commission.
The bill (HR 3914), sponsored by House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), would ensure that phone company petitions for deregulation are not automatically approved after 15 months simply because the FCC failed to deny them through inaction or a tie vote deadlock.
“We … believe there should be no regulatory forbearance by default,” said Cathy Avgiris, Comcast’s senior vice president and general manager for voice services.
Avgiris testified on Capitol Hill before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, along with leaders from other telecommunications companies and trade organizations.
Subcommittee chairman Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said he was concerned that forbearance petitions could ripen early next year when the FCC had just two Republicans and two Democrats. Current Republican FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate needs to leave when Congress adjourns in the fall unless she receives a recess appointment from President Bush.
“With the Commission having permitted forbearance on a two-two tie previously, and possibly having just four commissioners serving early next year, this concern is not purely theoretical,” Markey said.
Comcast is the fourth-largest residential local phone company in the United States, serving 5 million. Many FCC regulations — including the right of new entrants to interconnect with phone incumbents and the ability of consumers to retain their phone numbers when leaving incumbents — are critical to Comcast’s continued success as a voice provider.
“Congress and the FCC cannot assume that just because facilities-based voice competition has emerged, all is well,” Avgiris said. “The incumbents will continue to look for ways to stifle competition even as they call for less regulation of their own voice business.”
Jonathan Banks, senior vice president of law for the US Telecom Association, a trade group that includes AT&T and Verizon, endorsed current law, saying it required the FCC to respond to changes in the market.
“The world has changed now and Comcast is the No. 4 phone company, so there is no reason to keep regulations through inertia,” Banks said. “We do need something to make the FCC work.”
In 1996, Congress added language to the Communications Act that said any forbearance petition by a telecommunications carrier shall be “deemed granted” if the agency failed to deny it within 15 months.
According to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) 91 petitions have been filed in the past 12 years, only four took effect under the “deemed granted” language and three of those were noncontroversial. Only one, involving Verizon, was controversial.
“Of the 91 forbearance petitions filed, most are narrow. They deal with discrete sub-issues of telecom regulation,” Banks said.