Cable regulators will converge in the city by the Bay this week, and virtually all agree that the topic of the moment is Internet protocol-delivered services.
Local officials express frustration with the pace and direction of the Federal Communications Commission as it attempts to classify new services in the telecommunications realm. Regulators are also split over whether it’s time to rewrite the federal Cable Act to change rules to reflect current technology.
“We don’t think the FCC has made clear enough distinctions between applications and owner companies,” said Coralie Wilson, executive director of the North Suburban Communications Commission in Roseville, Minn., and president of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers, set to meet in San Francisco. If one company owns the application and the pipe, they’ll want to keep the application closed, she said.
“Our concern is that the direction of the FCC at this point is essentially to do away with the classification of services,” she said.
That sort of deregulation eliminates the ability of local governments to provide consumer-protection assurances and to provide a third-party source for complaint resolution, she said.
Wilson stressed that regulators are not against Internet protocol-based services — the ones that are breaking down barriers by allowing phone service to be provided over the Internet, and not the public switched-network system with its legacy of regulation and requirements to compensate local governments for use of public rights-of-way.
As cities struggle to cope with pending changes in telecommunications policy, local governments actually tend to be among the early adopters of new, more-efficient services.
Case in point: San Francisco city and county will light up a wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) hot spot in the city’s Union Square shopping district during NATOA’s national meeting Sept. 15-18.
The hot spot is considered an economic tool, noted Denise Brady, San Francisco’s recently retired deputy telecommunications director.
“IP offers a lot of flexibility,” Wilson said. “I have IP telephone [service] and there’s a lot I dearly love. But we want consumer protections.”
They include: assurance that 911 operators will be able to locate callers and that citizens have someone they can call other than a provider to resolve a billing dispute.
“People are getting so wrapped up in technology that they’re losing track of everything else,” added Hoffman Estates, Ill., cable-TV coordinator Bruce Anderson. “Local governments could easily get overlooked and protections of a long time could get lost in the rush to deploy.”
Local officials are also concerned that if the FCC doesn’t take action, some parts of the U.S. could end up with regulatory schemes that are different for cable and digital-subscriber line providers.
“The regulatory framework is a huge thing right now, and the FCC is not willing to go forward,” said attorney and Arvada, Colo., Mayor Ken Fellman, who helps shape telecommunications policy on committees within the National League of Cities.
The issue of classifying cable-modem service has been before the FCC since 2001, “and they haven’t done a damn thing about it,” Fellman noted with some frustration.
When commissioners do address the subject, members indicate they want to go in a direction that the federal Cable Act doesn’t allow, Fellman added, perhaps creating new product classifications. This would necessitate a rewrite of the ’92 law.
But local regulators are leery of getting involved in a process like rewriting federal law in which they’d be outnumbered and outspent by the telecommunications providers.
If federal policy is not clarified, local governments could be saddled with state-by- state policies, driven by vendors.
GOLDEN STATE FLAREUP
California is bound to be a legislative hot spot during next year’s session.
Local officials in the state note that Verizon Communications Inc. is lobbying legislators to support a bill next year that will provide the telephone company with franchising conditions it would consider ideal. (Its chief lobbyist, Tom Tauke, also asserted in an August press conference in Washington that Verizon shouldn’t even be required to have local cable franchises, but also said Verizon would seek local governmental consent.)
The California bill was introduced during the last session but did not make it out of the required committees.
Verizon is spending millions to build fiber-to-the-home telecommunications infrastructure in selected cities — and is lobbying for support from groups like the California League of Cities for a bill in that state that will guarantee that Verizon’s cable franchises don’t have to match those of cable incumbents.
The California bill proposes that Verizon be required only to build out within its existing telephony footprint — areas that don’t match cable franchises or even city boundaries.
Such a bill could cause a schism between city and regional regulators, noted Lori Panzino, division chief of franchise programs and special districts for San Bernardino County, Calif.
Many cities have cable franchises with “level playing field” requirements. They want to ensure that overbuilders meet standards substantially similar to those applied to the locality’s first video provider.
But some governments might welcome the service area-only franchise proposal in order to lure competition or, in some cases, jump-start rollouts of advanced services.
“We already have providers who do private video. What’s the difference?” Panzino asked rhetorically. “I still have areas that have no cable at all. If we can get them cable over a phone line, all the better.”
But whatever the franchising scheme, regulators want to retain the public-service offerings they’ve already established.
“Feasible [universal] 911 service is our concern. If they can comply with all of those rules, go for it,” Panzino said.