FCC Critic Neel Heads to Gore Camp

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Washington-In early September, Roy Neel will take what he calls a vacation.

Neel isn't heading to the beach or the golf course. He's traveling to Nashville, Tenn., and other parts of the country to join the Gore presidential campaign in another display of loyalty to his old friend and former boss, Vice President Al Gore.

A Gore aide on Capitol Hill and in the White House, Neel is currently president of the United States Telecom Association, the powerful trade association that lobbies Congress, the Federal Communications Commission and the White House on behalf of the four Baby Bells and hundreds of small phone companies.

Neel's USTA staff hinted a few months ago that he would be heading to the Gore camp at some point. Neel made it official a few weeks ago by naming former Ameritech Corp. Washington lobbyist Gary Lytle as his substitute.

"He'll be coming in around Labor Day to be USTA interim president while I take a vacation," Neel said during a recent press conference.

Neel has for years been one of the harshest critics of the FCC, an agency stocked with people hand-picked by Gore.

In his recently published memoir, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt recalled working hand in glove with Gore and the vice president's staff in developing telecommunications policy.

Neel has been especially critical of the FCC's implementation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with regard to regulating incumbent local phone carriers.

He hasn't been shy about going on the attack. Last November, the FCC ordered phone incumbents to allow digital-subscriber-line competitors to lease only the data frequencies on a line and skip paying for the voice portion.

At that time, Neel said the agency's rules came "close to the line of the nationalization" of the incumbent phone industry's facilities.

On the third anniversary of the 1996 law, Neel complained that the FCC had botched the job. "I think commissioners often get captured by career staff. They simply seem to be captured by a bureaucratic, regulatory mind-set," he said.

At a July 20 press conference, Neel was asked to explain why he would help Gore win the White House if that meant four more years of heavy-handed FCC regulation of the companies he represents.

"We just have honest disagreements, not between me and the vice president, but between myself [and] our entire industry and, in particular, the FCC while chairman Hundt was there," Neel said. "I just don't see the contradiction there or the problem there."

Neel acknowledged that the commission has been a source of disappointment "because the philosophy at the FCC was to blow open the local networks and jump-start competition."

But he disagreed with Hundt that the agency's agenda was driven by White House priorities. "I think it's a big overstatement to say that the White House was directly involved in setting FCC policies. I just don't think that happened," he added.

It's hard to tell whether the Baby Bells are unhappy about Neel's move. None would discuss whether Neel was right to help Gore, even though Gore has done little to help local phone companies.

"I just think we are not going to go there," BellSouth Corp.'s Bill McCloskey said in a response echoed by other telco spokesmen. "You can take Roy's comment for what it's worth."

Typically, politically connected staffers who work for trade associations use vacation time to work for the Republican or Democratic presidential candidate or to help out at the conventions. Rarely do trade-association heads do the same thing.

There are no plans by Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable Television Association, or Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, to take time off to work for Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But neither Sachs nor Fritts is a personal friend of Gore or Bush.

"I have a longtime friendship and relationship with the vice president, and I am going to go work in that campaign and try to help him get elected," Neel said.

A Gore 2000 spokeswoman said Neel "isn't officially joining the campaign. He is a friend of the campaign, and he doesn't have an official capacity."

Neel said he plans to return to the USTA after Election Day. "I expect to be back here after this election at some time, and I'll keep pounding on the FCC and the White House, if necessary, to try to get policies that are balanced and are true pro-competition," he added.