High-tech oversight agencies urged to develop more expertise

The debate on high-speed Internet services and telecommunications reform usually centers around legislation and Federal Communications Commission proceedings, but improving the technical capabilities at oversight agencies and reforming campaign-finance law would go further to modernize the industry, said one panelist at an AEI-Brookings Institution broadband forum Monday.

"The government doesn't know how to deal with these kinds of industries," said Charles Ferguson, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The Justice Department is lacking a chief technologist and the commissioners at the FCC are "technologically unsophisticated," he said, noting that most commissioners have political connections, rather than technical expertise.

The regulatory climate also is largely affected by the lobbying done by the major players, which include the regional Bell companies, cable firms and long distance carriers, panelists noted.

"When the Bells and cable duke it out, legislation is unlikely unless there is a crisis," said Robert Hahn, director of the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

And those firms, along with the local exchange carrier industry which generally is comprised of small firms, are battling on Capitol Hill over a bill that would deregulate the Bell's high-speed services. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. (Billy) Tauzin, R-La., and ranking Democrat John Dingell of Michigan introduced that legislation, H.R. 1542, which the House passed last month.

"The true core competency" of the regional Bell companies is lobbying, Ferguson said. Those firms spend more on lobbying, including campaign contributions, than they do for research and development, he said.

Tom Hazlett, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, said lobbying and discussion are necessary to solve the real problems of broadband deployment. And the solution, as he sees it, would be for the Senate to pass Tauzin-Dingell, or lawmakers in some way should deregulate the Bell companies.

"The regulatory structure is not consistent with getting modern communications out," Hazlett said, adding that the regulations the Bells face are "incompatible with the risk-taking" necessary to invest in high-speed services.