The Power of Information

A key FCC official talks about keeping up with the present and envisioning a better future.

by / February 28, 1999
Rosalind Allen is the FCC's director of legal analysis at the Office of Plans and Policy liaison for the Local and State Government Advisory Committee (LSGAC). It took a century to warrant the reforms of the Telecom Act 1996; less than three years after its adoption, it is already becoming obsolete. While the breakneck speed of telecommunications convergence brings rapid change, there are guiding principles that will never be outdated. Allen, seeking to break down the barriers consumers face, knows that information is power.

Q: What type of advice and perspective have you gained from local and state government representatives, and how much of the advice you solicit as liaison to the Local and State Government Advisory Committee does the FCC act on in formulating policy?

A: It's been a real learning experience. My realization, which I know sounds like a very basic one, but it's really factored very heavily into all of my decisions, is that both the federal government and state and local governments are really all trying to serve the public interest in their own way. And while the inside-the-Beltway regulatory perspective has frequently been colored by what I would call "jurisdiction concerns" like, "Is this mine? Is this yours? Who gets to do it?" -- that's not a constructive approach.

The constructive approach is, "What is the average person in your community saying is the problem?" and, "Let's figure out what states are doing to address that problem" and, "How does that relate to things that we might be doing?" In other words, it's more of a collaborative than a jurisdictional approach.

Q: What citizen concerns seem to come up again and again?

A: Lots of people are complaining, "My cable bill just really keeps going up and it seems like I am getting fewer channels or my channels keep changing position, so as an average person I feel like I have paid more money for service that seems like it is not as satisfactory as it seemed a year ago."

There are several things going on here, though, that might inform that concern. One of them is that, very soon under the Telecom Act, cable rate reform will sunset. There is a very lively debate going on about what that might or might not do to cable rates. And there is a lot of political jockeying going on.

The way the act is structured, and this is not the '96 act but really the cable reform act which predated that, there is a sunset on rate regulation [this month]. Obviously, there has been a lot of forethought from both the cable companies and the franchising authorities on how to handle that.

Another thing we are doing that would also factor into that concern is DTV deployment: the must-carry issue of whether the agency should require cable systems to carry both the analog and the digital signal until such time as the level of penetration of the digital signal is received by the general population.

A final aspect is that, in the aftermath of the '96 act, you are seeing cable companies interested in being much more than just a cable company. They want to provide telecom service, they want to provide Internet service -- they want to be a full-service telecom provider.

Q: There's a convergence going on.

A: There's a convergence going on and cable is an engine for that. It's evident in some parts of the country, so as a result, there is a perception perhaps on the part of the average subscriber that, "Gee I'm not sure I'm ready for this convergence! I'm very used to having my cable operator be the source of video entertainment and now all of a sudden it seems as though my bill is going up because they're offering these other services that I am not accustomed to them offering -- how do I adjust to this?" This is being played out here publicly, as in the AT&T/TCI merger context. That is a very tangible example of this convergence.

The last meeting of LSGAC was in November. [Chairman] Ken Fellman and the members spent time during that meeting on cable convergence issues. This was an opportunity for the staff working on these issues to hear particularly from the local end of things -- city attorneys and franchising authorities telling them what their constituents are concerned about.

What came out of that leg of LSGAC was a combined federal-local strike-force to deal with zoning controversies coming out of DTV deployment. On an as-needed basis, the strike-force can address concerns that come up in particular communities.

Q: For state and local governments the Telecom Act of 1996 has been ...

A: ... full of changes and uncharted territory. I might add, they are not alone. It is the same from our
perspective, it's a shared journey in that sense.

Over the past few years I have, obviously, been very involved in the federal government perspective of implementing the '96 act. Our bureau and the common carrier bureau have been more involved than any other part of the agency.

As much as we have felt that we are dealing with concepts for the first time and grappling with new ways of looking at telecom, it's the same thing going on with the local and state governments, except it is a little more difficult to delay, because they are not only trying to understand how new competition is set; their day-to-day concept is how they look at telecom. The traditional entities they are used to having in their communities they aren't [accustomed] to regulating. But also, how do they explain this to the average person?

It's a real challenge to explain how some things right now -- for example, cable convergence, which seems confusing and uncertain to people -- might actually be an opportunity if you let it unfold. But right now you are getting past the early stage of everyone feeling uncomfortable with change and not being sure what to make of it.

Under the '96 act [change] is very market-driven. There is not as heavy a hand of governments on either a local or federal level guiding who these new competitors would be. That means that the average consumer really needs a lot more information than they did in the past. They need to become more informed consumers, really, of the services they have come to rely on.

Q: Government Technology Editor at Large Blake Harris wrote about the so-called Telecom Wars [March 1998], warning of "sleeping giants." The real sleeping giant, he wrote, may be municipalities and what they are doing or may be doing to get into the telecom business directly, laying fiber to deliver cable TV to residents in competition with existing cable companies. What do you see on that front?

A: It is a very controversial and interesting area, and it is a "sleeping giant" in many ways. Yes, as a result of some of the cable renewal deals that get cut, local governments are increasingly asking for very advanced telecom services in exchange for the renewal franchise. There is so much capacity there that you can provide a lot of other services. It ties back to diminishing federal sources of revenue. This is another way not only of serving your community in a way that might be more doable, but also, it's another source of revenue.

But what I am also seeing in the wireless area are [three] things:

We are starting to see local governments in particular being interested, expressing interest, in bidding for licenses at auction that could be used for things like telephony or cable delivery. And that's just starting, so that is for local government a very fast and easy way to become a full-service telecom provider as opposed to laying cable.

Another thing is a lot of local government systems were relocated. As a result of the relocation they went up with state-of-the-art, wireless digital systems. So they have a lot of excess capacity now, too. And you are seeing that come out in all kinds of interesting ways.

Finally, a number of utilities owned by local or state governments and utilities for some years have been pushing the edges of wanting to become diversified providers and get into the telecom area. Here there is sometimes a conflict between what local government interests might be for that utility -- what they see the future might hold for the utility -- as opposed to what the utility might want to do.

One conflict overall is, local governments start to do things like use the public right-of-way. This has been the beginning and the end of the traditional conflicts between telecom service providers and local and state governments, particularly the local governments.

There is the issue of what is just and reasonable compensation for use of a public right-of-way and when does it stray into a barrier-to-entry. It takes on a whole new spin when the local government itself is using the right-of-way to compete with the service provider.

Q: FCC Chairman Bill Kennard spoke to Wireless 98 in Atlanta about working together to find solutions to this problem of tower-siting and not turning the FCC into a heavy-handed national zoning board, as he put it, rolling over the power of local governments. He mentioned co-location solutions, modern local ordinances. He said he stands ready to help, but that the industry must show a commitment to work with local and state governments in finding creative solutions. In August, he announced a historic agreement between local and state government and wireless industries in facilities siting issues. What else has happened since then and what are your responses to his remarks and the direction of the FCC with regard to state and local government?

A: [Regarding] the wireless industry, and its challenges: We achieved what he had hoped. The agreement is historic. Getting to the agreement, rather than the agreement itself, was really the historic part.

The process forces the parties to agree on a common set of values that they consider important with respect to the siting issue and that is laid out in the siting agreement. Once you get to that point, under any alternative dispute-resolution context, you should see the conflict-level and the tenor of the conflict go down considerably.

The fact that we have not yet had a single dispute referred through that mechanism is, for me, an unexpectedly high level of success as a process. People have gotten to the point where there is such a clear understanding between the wireless-deployment folks and right now the cellular folks as well as the local and state communities -- that they haven't had to bring the conflict to that bigger mechanism. They have been able to resolve it.

The next big area we are hoping to attack in that way is the right-of-way issue and whether we can come to some common understanding on principals there that should alleviate those types of things.

Q: An area that everybody is or should be attacking is Y2K. I know you have Commissioner Michael Powell working with the White House on that ...

A:He is our designated official [on the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion]. We have had a lot of industry-specific seminars. We are really trying to focus on constituencies under our agency's offices that are probably less likely than others to really be attuned to this. For example, we've had two seminars that have been directed exclusively at local and public safety officials. You know, this is not their primary focus in their day-to-day lives -- so we are trying to get them in tune to the problem. We have a Web site as well for them.

As you can see, there is a theme here. We really have found that the Web is really just a terrific way to get to the largest number of folks throughout the country. It is among one of the most heavily used Web sites in government, period.

[Examples of results are] very day-to-day stuff, which perhaps is the biggest proof of success. You go to meetings with folks who want to schedule meetings, and they are very well-informed. They've read all the background documents, they've got good questions. It's a world of difference from three years ago where people would basically have to be walked through the basics when they were briefed for a meeting.

The speed with which things travel through the media itself is very much informed through the Web. If we were at the same point information-wise as we were five years ago, Y2K would be a much bigger problem.

Q: What will be the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities in the next five years?

A: Convergence, competition and, I still think, community. How do you fit convergence and competition into both the community in the smaller sense and community in the larger, worldwide sense? There is a bigger sense of community developing as a result of both convergence and competition.

We haven't even begun to see the implications in satellite communications. Some of the newer technologies are just getting launched in the past few months. They are right now out of the range of the average person cost-wise. Over the next few years it's going to change dramatically and it will sure make the world feel like a much smaller place and a much more "neighborhood" kind of place for people. I hope that it will establish a more solutions-oriented approach to even local government problems in terms of global analogues to local problems -- more of a partnering in a bigger sense.

Q: One example of new technologies bringing us closer might be, instead of that brick of a global phone, more of a powerful "Star Trek" chirping wristwatch device.

A:It's sort of: You can reach anybody in the world at any place at any time. I think a few years ago, when this bureau was first established, that was our mission at one point: to be able to reach anybody in the world any place and any time. You can do that now, so, hmmm, I guess it's funny -- we need to come up with a new mission, I guess, if you want some other goals -- it's also developing a sense of regulation that is not technology-bound on the federal, local and state levels, which means that you're looking more at the concepts that you're concerned about rather than technology-specific fixes that are going to outdate themselves almost instantly.

Q: Good point. Could you name a couple concepts?

A: Well, I can tell you one thing: I am sure I am going to say something a bit controversial, but there is actually a part of this Telecom [Reform] Act [of 1996] that has since '96 become outdated and that is [a section of the] OTARD provision. It basically looks at the issue of allowing individual folks to have dishes for over-the-air broadcasting. It really looks at the First Amendment issue of getting entertainment over that media. But it has already become outdated because you are getting all kinds of offerings nowadays over the Internet or over other kinds of conduits that combine all these things. Why should it just be this kind of device? There are people living in apartment buildings, for example, [who] have restrictions being placed on them that are analogous to that type of restriction.

Any time you try to look at a particular technology, almost as soon as you put pen to paper, the reality has outpaced the regulation.

Q: Well that's interesting because it has taken more than a hundred years for the previous telecom laws to have become outdated, and now for the most recent laws imposed in the '96 act, it has taken less than three years.

A: Yes, I think that's right. It's a real challenge. We really need to look at the larger values that we are trying to get our arms around rather than a "what's today's new technology?" sort of thing.

I think the most important value is information -- access to information. It's a huge social divide for us in this country and a huge global divide if you put it in that bigger context. I think that should be the value: Everybody who is seeking to provide a service or really who is in government of any kind, should be trying to knock down that barrier and make access as widely available and in as low-cost a way to as many people and as many places as possible to help people enrich themselves in intellectual, social and economic ways -- enrich and empower.

And you see it locally. It is amazing some of the changes that satellite-based technologies are making in some of the lesser-developed parts of the world. Having simple information about how much your crops are going to sell for a hundred miles away before you get to market can change your bargaining position.

Information is power -- it empowers people. So if you really want the world to be full of people who are competent and empowered and comfortable about their future and living in an environment where they feel in control of their future instead of victimized by their future and the consequences, you want them to get that information. Because that is what will change their lives.

Victor Rivero is editor of Government Technology's sister publication, Converge. Email