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Tauzin talks telcom

Commerce chairman talks about deregulation, digital progress, competition, the First Amendment, and election coverage 1/14/2001 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) has said for years his only career ambition was to be chairman of the House Commerce Committee. Well, he has made it. Tauzin has six years-if the Republicans stay in power-to guide U.S. policy over the dynamic telecommunications and media industries. He brings a lot to the job. He's probably the House's most knowledgeable member on issues related to broadcasting, cable and technology. He's a smooth orator, a charming politician and a gifted fund-raiser. What this job will test is his skill as a legislator. In a narrowly divided House, that's likely to be quite a challenge. Here, he talks with BROADCASTING & CABLE Assistant Editor Paige Albiniak about his vision for the committee, the telcom world beyond the halls of Congress, and how he can help get the transition to digital TV on track.

Now that you're committee chairman. What's your agenda?

Well, obviously, our primary obligation in the early months will be to deliver to the floor on time and in good order the major elements of our party's agenda that is under our party's jurisdiction. That includes an awful lot of things. That includes obviously and principally some energy reforms.

With telecommunications, the major objectives are the deregulatory objectives of the 1996 [Telecommunications] Act, which is finishing the job of deregulating the telcos and, at the same time, opening the way for full broadband. Look for full-broadband competition. We've seen the beginnings of that debate before the FTC and FCC. Obviously, that's going to be a huge focus of the telcom work.

The third part and fourth part are equally important. Third is hastening the pace of the transition to digital television. That's stuck in the mud right now. We've got to move it out quickly. One of my requests to the subcommittee will be to conduct some serious inquiries as to why it's stuck: who needs to move faster; who needs to move first; who needs to move second; what needs to be done to get it back on track by the year 2006 [when broadcasters are required to return their analog spectrum].

And then finally, FCC reform, which I hope to use as a model for other agencies. And, frankly, I hope Mike Powell is appointed chairman because he's committed to help me do that in a speedier rather than slower fashion.

By the way, the first phone call I got congratulating me was not from my mother, or from a staffer or from a friend. [It] was from George W. It's kind of neat. Shows that he's well organized and also that he's vitally interested in some of the aspects of our mutual work.

Any word on [FCC Commissioner] Michael Powell's appointment as chairman?

All I know is that he's one of the front-runners and that he's getting a lot of solid recommendations from a lot of people I trust.

You talked about digital television stuck in the mud. Do you have faith that it will get unstuck?

Yes. The reason is that I'm going to find that answer. I don't know it yet. I don't know why it hasn't moved as well as it should. But I do know that, when you get all of the players in a room and you make them start pointing fingers at each other, you eventually find out who is holding it up.

Sometimes it is just a question of chicken. Each is afraid to move until the other moves. The technology is not quite settled here, and nobody wants to make a decision until it is. Well, perhaps we can help that process. So once we know why decisions are being delayed, we can help, perhaps, encourage an orderly process again that gets it on track.

Do you think free over-the-air broadcasting has a future?

Broadcasting will be around for a long time. It's going to mutate. It's going to change. Everybody knows that the Internet has already radically altered the way we listen to music and the way radio stations operate. And it's going to do the same thing to television as soon as the computer and the television complete that incredible marriage that's coming-it's already started. And when they are fully bonded the way wireless telephones have bonded to computers, we're going to see some exciting new changes. That doesn't mean broadcasting doesn't have a great future: It has a different future, perhaps an even more exciting one.

I'll tell you one thing: The most dangerous place in America is to get between the consumer and his television. I think that's always going to be true.

Let's talk specifically about FCC reform. Do you have any ideas on how you want to do this?

Obviously, we need to reorganize so that it reflects the new marketplace. It's patterned on an old marketplace. It has to focus on the notion that industries are converging. The way in which voice, data and video [are] transmitted in the future would be less relevant than the way that it's all combined. It's all available to us in a digital format. It will not make a whole lot of sense to regulate it differently because it's delivered a little differently.

Secondly, it has to focus on deregulating the marketplace and encouraging competition. It has to be focused on preventing consumer problems because of dominance and monopoly-type players in the marketplace. Finally, it has to focus on making sure that players don't step on each others'toes, that the spectrum is used wisely and that all the players respect one another. I guess I can add one more thing, and that's the international character of communications now and making sure that what we do in this country fits with what other regulatory bodies do around the world.

You are saying that consumer protection involves preventing consumer problems due to monopoly players, but one of the big complaints about the FCC has been that it is too close to what the antitrust agencies are doing and that it slows up the whole process. How do you think those two things dovetail?

Well, they do dovetail in this respect. Obviously, where a merger or acquisition is concerned, it has to get approved by the Justice Department. The Justice Department should do the basic work on the antitrust aspects of the merger or the acquisition. And the FCC should not have to redo all that. But because the FCC has an interest in those other aspects I mentioned-fostering competition and in making sure that players don't step on each other's toes as they go about merging and converging and delivering services-the FCC may, in fact, have a continued role in that licensing procedure.

And you intend to allow it to keep that role?

Yes. The FCC will have some role when it comes to the spectrum and the way in which the spectrum is used and the management of it. We can't do without that authority. I can't imagine what a wild, wild West situation we would have if it didn't. On the other hand, it doesn't need to duplicate the work of the Justice Department. We have to set some clear lines of distinction. In the 1996 Act, we thought we had [set those lines] when we took away the merger-review authority from the FCC.

But, of course, the FCC has used its licensing authority to duplicate the work of the FTC and the Justice Department. Because the FTC is under our jurisdiction as well, we have some opportunities to work out those interplays. What I do want to stop-and I'll be very candid with you about this-is this business of subjective regulation in the process of approval and this sort of greenmail that occurs.

So, how do you feel about the overall progress on the AOL Time Warner merger?

I'll feel a lot better if the right chairman's in place. To the [FTC's] credit, they did not make a policy decision on open access. They basically said to Time Warner and AOL, "It would help your application if we knew that you were open to at least some competitors, so demonstrate to us that you won't be the sole provider of these services to these millions of Americans." And AOL Time Warner basically did demonstrate that to the FTC.

I think that's a much better approach. I think that's an approach that properly addresses our antitrust concerns. It's pro-competition without making a policy. The policy should be made here if we are going to make one. It's a huge policy question because it opens the doors to the question of Internet regulation. That's one that regulators should not make without the Congress being not only involved but [with Congress being] the principal decider.

What about broadband regulation? You and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced a bill that would allow regional telephone companies to deliver broadband services across state lines. It had a majority of co-sponsors in the House, and people expect it to move. Do you expect it to move, and when?

The opponents of that bill had some concerns.

Cable, you mean?

Cable, AT & T, MCI. I don't want to dismiss those concerns. I've signaled to them that, when we get back in session again, I'll want to talk with them, I'll want to work with them. I'll want to build a process that's not so contentious, where we have some movement toward conciliation and agreement, and I think we can find it. Obviously, AT & T has an agenda. They have some things they need. They are concerned about the cable caps. There is no reason why we can't all sit down and somehow work out some policy agreements that would get everybody moving again.

Do you think that would be a whole package?

Not necessarily, but those are the kinds of talks we have to have. Everyone is up here asking for something. We have to make sure that, in the end, everyone has a fair chance to go out there and compete. That's what I want to do. I want to review all of that. And I'm trying to send a signal to them that I want them to be part of this equation. I'm not going to try to jam something down anybody's legislative throat without at least first trying to see if we can't work something out.

Did those talks occur last year at all?

There were some preliminary ones-on-again, off-again. There were some talks, for example, in connection with reciprocal compensation. They were never really completed. I saw the seeds at least. I saw the beginnings of an attempt to try to reconcile all these parties. In the end, they are all going to be doing the same business. All these old distinctions between local and long distance and distance in general are going to be blown away by the new broadband services.

What Internet issues, besides broadband, will you tackle?

Privacy. That's a huge one. It's one of the big items on our agenda early on. One of the principal obligations of one of the subcommittees will be to deliver on a privacy bill to the full committee. We still have the taxation issue hanging out there, and open access.

What about Internet TV, such as IcraveTV and RecordTV? Is that going to be in your committee at all, or is that going to be in Judiciary?

Judiciary has some claim on the copyright issues on that side, but we obviously have a huge play on that because it involves communications and it involves the sanctity of broadcast rights and the use of public spectrum.

Any sense on how that might play out?

I think it will play out basically the same way that Napster's fight with the music industry is being played out.

There will be attempts to make it free for everybody at first, then recognition that there are some property rights involved. And there will be some balance established where people are properly compensated for their creative works. I happen to be very strong on property rights. When it comes to those issues, I am going to try to resolve them in a way that keeps creativity flowing and keeps access open but at the same time respects people's rights to be compensated for their creative works.

When you get down to the music and television and Hollywood-based industries, their interplay with Congress is on those two levels. Our job is to respect their First Amendment rights to be creative, and it's also our job to protect their property rights and their creativity. For us to do our job right for that community, we have to be very sensitive to those two concerns. That's why, when we do our hearings on election coverage, we're being very careful again to respect First Amendment rights, but at the same time see if we can't encourage the industry to do a better job.

What do you expect to come of the election-coverage hearing? The networks have been fairly candid that they consider it their mistake, and they've taken responsibility. What do you expect to gain from having this hearing?

We have to focus on why this happened. One of the basic tenets of journalism is that, to be credible, news organizations ought to depend upon two good sources that they don't control. In this case, all the networks depended upon a single source that they owned and that they themselves paid for. You can imagine a big news story done on that basis and how it would lack credibility in the marketplace of ideas. If every news organization owned its sources and it only used the one source it owned, we'd have a pretty lousy set of news networks for our country.

So the basic question here is, can we have good election-night coverage when the networks own the only source of information upon which they make these calls.

Secondly, we need to look at what happened that night. Why these calls came out so biased. I'm not surprised the networks were quick to say it wasn't intentional, and I frankly hope that's true. But the question that sort of hangs out there is, if it wasn't intentional, how did it happen? How did you get a set of calls that were so uniformly biased? And how can we make sure it doesn't happen again. Then the third thing I want to do in a hearing is emphasize the need not only for reforms the industry should carry out but also some things we ought to do, like a universal poll-closing time.

Do you expect that to go through?

I think that has legs now. It just may go through. Additionally, maybe we need some new agreements with the networks on the timing of the calls. One of the things I found most offensive about that night. Here she is again, Katherine Harris in Florida. She actually sent a notice out on Oct. 30 to the networks urging them not to make calls in Florida until the Panhandle had completed voting, and it was completely ignored. With one exception I think, all the networks called Florida before the Panhandle was through voting. Do we now know how important that could have been? My point is we've got to get a new agreement on when these calls are made and how they are made.

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