Telecom Reform? Don’t Bet On It

Its crisis over judicial nominees finally over, the U.S. Senate now has time to consider a wide array of tech-related issues. Republicans are proposing subsidies and Democrats are offering tax incentives, and it’s both good news and bad news for technology.

The five-month filibuster deadlock over judicial nominees means not much will be accomplished by the end of the year. But with the rancor receding, the renewed interest in campaign pledges to tech is promising.

In 2004, both Republicans and Democrats, for instance, gave at least lip service to the national broadband rollout. They’re both for it.

President Bush set a goal to make broadband “affordable and accessible” to all Americans within the next 24 months. He said he’d call for the FCC to deliver even more spectrum on the private sector than it already has, which is considerable.

With little to disagree on when it comes to broadband, Sen. John Kerry promised tax incentives for companies that invest in next-generation broadband. He too, he said, was a wireless kind of guy, calling for completing the digital television (DTV) transition to provide wireless broadband with beachfront spectrum.

Neither, however, mentioned telecom reform.

Since work resumed on a Senate technology agenda, both parties are introducing priorities and legislation to deliver on their promises. Republican Ted Stevens said he plans to pass a bill by the end of the year forcing broadcasters out of their analog spectrum.

It’s hard to say who’s drooling the most over this spectrum: Congress, which hopes to raise as much as $3 billion auctioning it off, or the wireless broadband providers lining up to bid for it.

Republicans are so enthused over the potential bonanza they are prepared to step out of their philosophical skins and support a converter box subsidy program to hasten the transition. Amused Democrats complimented the Republicans for their compassion for the poor, but wondered if everyone would qualify for the $35 or would means testing be involved?

As the new Senate Commerce Committee chairman, the legislation is an early test of Stevens’ ability to deliver. It’s also a test of the willingness of bitterly divided colleagues to put aside past differences to work toward a national policy they already agree on.

On the Democratic side, West Virginia’s John Rockefeller filed legislation to allow broadband providers to expense 50 percent of their investments on current-generation technology and 100 percent on next-generation technology. Deficit? What deficit? Among the prominent co-sponsors of the bill is Republican Conrad Burns, a key member of Stevens’ Commerce Committee.

Telecom reform? It didn’t come up. As usual, there’s much talk and little action.

The 108th Congress used the promise of telecom reform to pass the buck on the hard telecom issues, leaving them in the uncertain hands of regulatory agencies and the courts. Internet telephony? We’ll cover that next year in the telecom reform bill.

Next year is here, but because of the Republicans’ and the Democrats’ blood feud over judges, telecom reform is nowhere in sight. Not a single bill has been introduced, much less had a hearing.

Even over in the House, telecom reform is a distant, vague target. Republican Joe Barton, Stevens’ counterpart on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said earlier this year he hoped to have a telecom reform bill on the House floor by summer.

As heat and humidity descends on Capitol Hill, there’s no sign of it. Barton spent the last five months pushing an anti-spyware bill through the House that has a dubious future in the Senate. At last sighting, Barton was drawing the subsidy line at only one converter box per home.

White House leadership on Bush’s 2007 goal of broadband in every pot?

Jim DeLong, a senior fellow at the conservative Progress & Freedom Foundation think tank, told internetnews in January that the president “has never mentioned telecom reform. I’ll bet the word ‘broadband’ will not pass the lips of the president [this year].”

So far, he’s winning his bet.

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