The Twists and Turns of Telecommunications

Article excerpt

How to Put Your Community On the Map

It's not a superhighway - it's a maze! The technologies of telecommunications have become essential elements of our lives and consequently of our means of governance. These are complex systems, both wired and wireless, that bring us information through various wires in the ground, invisible transmissions over the air, and signals shooting down from satellites in space. And, simply said, regulations just have not kept up with the exploding growth of these technologies.

How can local government keep current with the rapid developments in telecommunications technologies and regulations? Get in front, and devise a plan.

Local governments are providers, users, and regulators of the $200 billion telecommunications services industry in the United States. Many local governments now are jumping to the fore with strategic plans for seeking out partnerships with the public and industry to assure that local infrastructures are developed to assure economic vitality, right-of-way management, and public benefits. Local governments are developing strategic alliances and creative regulatory schemes all over the country: from Blacksburg, Virginia, to Milpitas, California, and to Seattle, Austin, Kansas City, and Clark County, Nevada.

"It's time to break out of traditional paradigms," says Jim Ley, assistant county manager of Clark County, Nevada. "You will be useless if you can't convert technical skills to a management context." Clark County approached this management challenge in early 1995, first, by focusing on a vision, then by using the vision to set guiding principles that would define a community-based telecommunications infrastructure.

The Clark County plan sees telecommunications as a means of reaching a goal - that of achieving economic prosperity and consumer protection while satisfying the public and civic interests.

"The basic principles of this plan," Ley explains, "are to maintain local control of the rights-of-way, establish appropriate quid pro quos for the use of public property, satisfy the needs of consumers and the public interest, retain rate stability, provide for effective competition, and apply appropriate and necessary regulations in a uniform fashion."

Why is a plan necessary? On the theory that people cannot know where they are going unless they know where they have been, it is critical for local governments to understand the history of telecommunications technologies and regulations, if only to know how we got to this crossroads in the first place.

The Marketplace: Monopoly Versus Free Market Competition

The "information superhighway" has been talked about ad infinitum, though the term is not particularly well defined. In telecommunications, this highway leads from traditional regulated monopolies to a marketplace where free and open competition prevails. We are not there yet.

Myriad telecommunications technologies, because of their disparate historical roots, have been regulated differently by federal, state, and local authorities. As technologies merge to provide streams of digitized voice, video, and data without distinction among different providers, regulatory schemes no longer can be applied equitably. So legislators scramble to change the rules, amending and rewriting the cornerstone of the nation's telecommunications policy, the Communications Act of 1934. Such changes have been proposed with ever-increasing frequency: just in recent memory, major federal policy changes were initiated in 1972, 1984, 1992, and the current congressional session.

Telephony

Early in the soon-to-be-over twentieth century, the nation's telephone service was established as a regulated local monopoly with federal powers delegated to the states. Along with this monopoly power came the phone companies' obligation to provide universal service, whereby all consumers should have reasonably priced access to the public, switched network. …