The final language on a broad set of regulations governing competition between telephone and Internet service providers in the U.S. may be finished by the end of this week, after a half year of waiting, according to U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officials.
But telecommunications companies waiting for the final language of the FCC's triennial review aren't holding their breath, and some say the FCC's delay is postponing investment and causing uncertainty in the already troubled telecommunications industry. The FCC has been promising for months that the rules would come out soon, prompted by a steady stream of calls by the U.S. Congress for the FCC to issue the final language on changes to telephone competition rules approved by the commission Feb. 20.
"I really think it's this week," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said at a press conference Wednesday. But Powell also noted that the FCC had made the same sort of predictions previously, and he didn't answer a question about the cause for delay.
At issue are the rules that govern what network elements the regional Bell operating companies must share with their competitors, including parts of their DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) services.
The so-called triennial review is one of the most important decisions in the FCC's 80-year history, said Dana Frix, a telecom lawyer with law firm Chadbourne & Parke LLP, and the delay creates confusion in the telecom industry.
"This is the fundamental reordering order," said Frix, who has represented telephone companies that compete with the regional Bells. "There's going to be a new world out there, and here are the rules for the new world. But nobody knows what those new rules are."
Little information has been leaking out about the direction of the final order, Frix added. "Nobody I know is making any bets on when it's going to come out, and nobody knows why it isn't coming out," he said.
In February, the FCC voted to allow the four regional Bells to refuse sharing new fiber-based broadband networks with competitors, and to stop offering line-sharing at discounted prices for DSL service to competing Internet service providers serving residential customers. The FCC left it up to state public utility commissions to decide whether the regional Bells should still offer local phone switching facilities to competing phone carriers at discounted rates. [See, "FCC telecom decision: Something for everyone," Feb. 21.]
The FCC vote Feb. 20 gave the telecom industry a general sense of the direction the commission is headed, but the network-sharing rules, often called the unbundled network element (UNE) rules, are highly complicated and technical. The broad direction the FCC approved in February doesn't give telecom companies enough direction to move forward with many plans, Frix said, and even the final order will be open to some interpretation.
"Imagine 200 lawyers and a 600- to 700-page single-spaced order," Frix said. "How much damage do you think we can do?"
The details about how the FCC-approved changes will happen are in the written rules, and representatives of the telecom industry say the delay puts parts of their business in limbo.