Local governments should take action now to prepare for life under new state and federal telecommunications laws and regulations, and to deal with the changing telecom market. While it's true that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and state public utilities commissions are still writing regulations to implement telecom reform, local governments should be proactive and begin planning to manage public assets and take advantage of the new regime. The private sector certainly isn't waiting for all the rules to be written before exploring new markets and opportunities.
A good first move for a local government is to take a step back and examine current ordinances to see how they may apply under the new conditions. Also, a telecommunications policy should be written to guide the jurisdiction as it moves into the brave and deregulated new world. "Without a plan, you're just a ship adrift without a rudder," said Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc. Local government should try to understand federal and state law, he said, then develop a "plan to take care of the community, so that you are not just reacting."
Telecommunications reform is essentially about lowering barriers between previously separated service providers and markets. Telephone companies, for example, will be able to offer both long-distance and local service, while cable providers could offer data as well as video service.
"The clean lines are gone," said John Kenny, president of U.S. Strategies Corp., an Alexandria, Va.-based consulting group, at a recent conference on the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996. The blurring of previously separate markets require local governments to examine existing ordinances to see if they "take into account what response to give to a request to run a conduit or erect a cellular phone tower."
Local governments also need to do it soon. "This is a critical time," Kenny said. "Telecommunications is changing very rapidly, and the marketplace will not wait for local governments."
If local governments lay a good foundation now, city and county decision makers will be better prepared to deal with telecommunications issues as the private sector increasingly enters local markets, requests use of public assets and proposes erecting communications towers for personal communication and cellular telephone services.
Local governments also need to look at how they manage rights-of-way and deal with multiple providers expressing a desire to do business in their municipalities. Governments must treat all comers on a neutral and nondiscriminatory basis to comply with the federal act and some state statutes being passed.
While it is important to create a level playing field for providers, it is not necessary to treat all types of providers exactly the same way, according to William Mathewson, staff attorney for the Michigan Municipal League, who added that too much emphasis has been placed on the term "nondiscriminatory."
"There can be differentiation between types of providers," he said. Mathewson asserted that the point of nondiscriminatory language is to maintain a level playing field between competitors.
Ensuring a level playing field could require local governments to take a step back and write a telecommunications plan. Such a plan can show the community's priorities and values, and how the municipality intends to deal with companies trying to gain entry in the local market while promoting competition.
It is still important for local government to be involved in the regulatory and legislative process, which can be done through state associations or groups like the National League of Cities or National Association of Counties. But it is also important for local governments to begin thinking about how to implement and use the new laws and regulations.
CALIFORNIA LEAGUE MODEL
The California League of Cities model telecommunications policy, which can be found on the Association of Bay Area Governments home page