Past Issues of Government Technology

U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden

U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden

by / July 31, 1995 0
Aug 95

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 merger of services, such as cable delivering interactive communication, how should universal service be defined today?

Wyden: This is an extraordinarily important issue because you have a real danger of an information aristocracy today where those who are affluent have access to extraordinary technology and those who are low income do not. There's a very serious issue here.

Government needs to think expansively about how to build the network while making sure as many people as possible can share in the fruits of the technological revolution.

It's interesting you asked about service because we are concerned that the whole service question is getting lost in this debate about telecommunications, deregulation and competition. We're also looking at approaches to promote better quality service so we don't have people stranded because of PBX systems, stranded because they can't find someone to repair their phone, those kind of things.

GT: How should this be handled?

Wyden: Obviously, service is the key function of state public utility commissions - making sure that people with service complaints and problems have them addressed. We're looking at ways to build on the existing system with the role of the state PUC.

GT: Regarding the issue that information `haves and have nots' and the potential of an aristocracy, how should this issue be addressed, short of giving everyone a PC and modem?

Wyden: When you talk about defining the telecommunications future, this joint exercise is really a two-step process - trying to figure out what is going to be available, when it's going to be available and how to make sure that everyone can get online. If you think narrowly you don't have the kind of consumer base that allows companies to afford to build off the network. It's a more expansive kind of approach to how you define it.

GT: How have conditions in Congress changed from last session regarding telecommunication reform?

Wyden: The Senate made all kinds of very aggressive efforts early on. We were talking about how we're going to have a bill on the floor, that there's going to be rapid action - then it all sort of ground to a halt. Now the House is moving, and based on everything I've seen, maybe the House gets the floor before the Senate. The Senate said they were really ready to go. There's been a lot of backfilling now, and the House will move quickly. I think the House will be on the floor before the Senate.

GT: How has the chemistry, the process and approach to telecommunications reform changed since last session?

Wyden: People like Jack Fields have worked very cooperatively with Democrats in the bipartisan way, yet in the House, it hasn't changed a whole lot. The bipartisan emphasis under Chairman [Ed] Markey and Chairman [Jack] Fields from last session, fortunately, has been continuing that kind of approach in the telecommunications area.

GT: From the perspective as a House member, how do you see the Senate's approach to telecommunications reform?

Wyden: There are of course efforts on both sides of the aisle to make the bill less regulatory. The bill that passed the House last time didn't have very many "no" votes. There's certainly something to build on here.

GT: How have some of the processes of writing telecommunications reform - such as how the Senate bill was created - changed?

Wyden: I don't think the process has changed much on the house side. Under Markey, they reached out to a good cross section of groups - industries, states, cities and consumers. I think Fields has continued that.

GT: How should local governments get involved in the legislative process currently under way? How can our readers contribute to telecommunications reform?
to a line in each home. But with the coming merger of services, such as cable delivering interactive communication, how should universal service be defined today?

Wyden: This is an extraordinarily important issue because you have a real danger of an information aristocracy today where those who are affluent have access to extraordinary technology and those who are low income do not. There's a very serious issue here.

Government needs to think expansively about how to build the network while making sure as many people as possible can share in the fruits of the technological revolution.

It's interesting you asked about service because we are concerned that the whole service question is getting lost in this debate about telecommunications, deregulation and competition. We're also looking at approaches to promote better quality service so we don't have people stranded because of PBX systems, stranded because they can't find someone to repair their phone, those kind of things.

GT: How should this be handled?

Wyden: Obviously, service is the key function of state public utility commissions - making sure that people with service complaints and problems have them addressed. We're looking at ways to build on the existing system with the role of the state PUC.

GT: Regarding the issue that information `haves and have nots' and the potential of an aristocracy, how should this issue be addressed, short of giving everyone a PC and modem?

Wyden: When you talk about defining the telecommunications future, this joint exercise is really a two-step process - trying to figure out what is going to be available, when it's going to be available and how to make sure that everyone can get online. If you think narrowly you don't have the kind of consumer base that allows companies to afford to build off the network. It's a more expansive kind of approach to how you define it.

GT: How have conditions in Congress changed from last session regarding telecommunication reform?

Wyden: The Senate made all kinds of very aggressive efforts early on. We were talking about how we're going to have a bill on the floor, that there's going to be rapid action - then it all sort of ground to a halt. Now the House is moving, and based on everything I've seen, maybe the House gets the floor before the Senate. The Senate said they were really ready to go. There's been a lot of backfilling now, and the House will move quickly. I think the House will be on the floor before the Senate.

GT: How has the chemistry, the process and approach to telecommunications reform changed since last session?

Wyden: People like Jack Fields have worked very cooperatively with Democrats in the bipartisan way, yet in the House, it hasn't changed a whole lot. The bipartisan emphasis under Chairman [Ed] Markey and Chairman [Jack] Fields from last session, fortunately, has been continuing that kind of approach in the telecommunications area.

GT: From the perspective as a House member, how do you see the Senate's approach to telecommunications reform?

Wyden: There are of course efforts on both sides of the aisle to make the bill less regulatory. The bill that passed the House last time didn't have very many "no" votes. There's certainly something to build on here.

GT: How have some of the processes of writing telecommunications reform - such as how the Senate bill was created - changed?

Wyden: I don't think the process has changed much on the house side. Under Markey, they reached out to a good cross section of groups - industries, states, cities and consumers. I think Fields has continued that.

GT: How should local governments get involved in the legislative process currently under way? How can our readers contribute to telecommunications reform?

Wyden: What I hope that they will do is work with Sen. Hutchison and myself to try to push this kind of approach to ensure that cities and local jurisdictions are placed at the table as telecommunications policy is made in the 21st century. I think that's essentially what we're talking about. Those rights-of-way are the key kinds of ways to make sure local government is at the table.

GT: That is, the key with locals is rights-of-way?

Wyden: I think that's right at the heart of it. I think that cities need to be very aggressive in terms of getting their message out. They need to make it clear what they want in terms of telecommunications in the next century.

GT: Should they be contacting local representatives?

Wyden: Now is the time. Now is when local and state elected officials need to weigh in with their House members and senators so that when telecommunications policy is made, cities and states are not left in the dust.

GT: In regard to your personal use of technology, do you go online, use e-mail or Internet?

Wyden: We're just getting online with Internet, our system is compact. I can surf the `Net a little bit.

GT: Do you have a public e-mail box yet?

Wyden: We're waging a fight against the student loan cuts, and we're doing it over e-mail. The House maintains a Gopher service so people can dial in at the standard address gopher.house.gov