What's Next in Telecom?

Globalization, spectrum reform and universal service are some of the critical issues facing the telecom industry, says infotech attorney Richard Wiley

Richard Wiley is one of Washington's top infotech law attorneys. He has a great resume for the role, having served as commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from 1970 to 1977, where he helped broker the "Grand Alliance" of companies currently developing digital TV technology. Since 1987, Wiley has chaired the FCC's advisory committee on digital TV. He practices law at the Washington-based firm of Wiley, Rein & Fielding. WT talked with Wiley about the future of telecom.

WT: Will we soon see a new spectrum-reform bill in Congress?

WILEY: There probably won't be [spectrum-reform] legislation on the immediate horizon, but there is lots of congressional interest. Congress has discovered a reality. That is, spectrum is a valuable finite public resource for which there are infinite demands.

The big debate is over the TV spectrum. The FCC has a transition plan to move the country from analog to digital television. The question is, should we disrupt that plan and auction the digital spectrum. [But] that will deprive the over-the-air broadcast viewers of advanced television.

[Sen. Larry Pressler's spectrum-reform bill will] evolve toward a possible bill, but I think that will be in 1997.

WT: What comes next in the international marketplace?

WILEY: There are two trends in international telecom. Increasing globalization [that forces] former national carriers [into] competing internationally, and increasing experimentation with different telecom models other than the traditional half circuit.

The next step will be a gradual elimination of the [existing] accounting and settlements process, [which divides equally the revenues from calls between the two nations]. It will be replaced by a cost-based access charge approach.

WT: What is the next step in the universal service debate?

WILEY: [Deciding] how to define universal service... [and] how to pay for it. It looks like all telephone carriers must contribute [to the universal service fund, which] may be extended to information service providers, even to companies with private networks. Within a year, this issue presumably will be decided.

WT: Would a Republican defeat in the 1996 presidential and congressional elections make any difference for telecom?

WILEY: I don't think so. We see bipartisan consensus in the [1996 reform] legislation toward more competition and less regulation.

WT: What impact does the China issue have on U.S. technology policy?

WILEY: Little. The administration recognizes that it won't be able to link human rights violations to trading status. And they are not willing to unilaterally revoke China's most favored nation [trading status]. But they are quietly attempting to get European nations to slow down investment in China. So far, Europe has refused, because a lot of its major companies have big investments in China. Given that, I don't see the United States doing much in that area.

WT: What are the government's most powerful levers for promoting technology?

WILEY: The most powerful lever is the one that we have already seen -- competition. In other words, set the framework for competition and get out of the way. Don't pick tech winners and losers. Set standards, but do it on the basis of industry consensus. Tax incentives are a big lever.

WT: How much lobbying will the FCC undergo as it implements the 1996 telecom reform act?

WILEY: I think it will be unprecedented. There are 80 new proceedings at the FCC.... What will win is anyone arguing for a more competitive marketplace. That's where the act is clear [and where] Congress sets the tone.

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