Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is a member of the House Commerce Committee subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance, which is crafting telecommunications reform legislation.
Rep. Wyden was involved in the House' passage of telecommunications legislation last year, only to watch the bills die in the Senate in the waning days of the 103rd Congress. Three new telecommunications bills - S. 652, HR 1528 and HR 1555 - have been taken up by committees this year, and floor votes appear likely this summer.
Wyden supports bill amendments submitted by Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, which explicitly give local governments control over rights-of-way (Government Technology July 1995). But the language favoring local governments, which wasn't included in the early versions of the House bill, may face an uphill struggle to remain in the Senate's version of telecommunications reform.
Government Technology Features Editor Brian Miller interviewed Rep. Wyden.
GT: In the emerging rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act, a portion of S. 652 concerns local control of rights-of-way. What should local governments control and why?
Wyden: I think that certainly the Senate is moving in the right direction. Sen. [Kay Bailey] Hutchison's language would supplement it and we're going to be working on the House side to get that in.
GT: What exactly does her language address or how does it address this issue?
Wyden: It essentially provides for local control over rights-of-way and fair compensation.
GT: Why is this issue important for local governments?
Wyden: The government that is close to people, particularly in the West and in fast-growing areas, is where people work first. Given the importance of communications in the next century, I, among others, think it's important that local government not be locked out. Your ability to get everything - from your city council hearing to emergency information - to a great extent is governed by what happens at the local level in terms of the telecommunications infrastructure.
GT: With the emerging telecommunications law being worked on by Congress, what should each level of government - federal, state and local - be in charge of. For example, where would state utilities commissions come in, where should the FCC come in and then of course, local government?
Wyden: Obviously, if someone's got a complaint you've got to find somewhere they can go quickly. It seems to me that's why you need a strong role for the state. The state PUC is in a position to quickly try to provide assistance to consumers in that kind of situation. Because of the historic role of the 1934 act, the federal government's role is to be catalyst and to set the ground rules - to set a regulatory environment for others. Then of course, local governments - the place where people literally go first when they have concerns - has got to be in a position to be responsive as well.
GT: If locals are not given as much control as, for example, the Hutchison language would give them, what sort of scenario do you think would be likely to occur in the future?
Wyden: I think it's very important for local governments to weigh in aggressively for that kind of involvement. My feeling is that the last time around, local government didn't really get there in time. Local government really got there when there was a crisis on the porch, which was to a great extent being read out of much of the telecommunication future. We've been working with local government trying to get them activated to weigh in for Hutchison-style language.
GT: Defining universal service has evolved over the decades since the 1934 law was enacted. It has gone from meaning a public telephone in a neighborhood to a line in each home. But with the coming