Lott takes shot at FCC

Rankled by broadband position, he says the commission 'distorts' laws

Republican favorite Michael Powell may be at the helm of the FCC, but you wouldn't know it from listening to Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.)

"I've been very disturbed by the FCC for a long time," Lott said at the National Association of Broadcasters State Leadership Conference in Washington last week. "Like many agencies, they take the laws we make and distort them." Particularly disturbing to Lott is the FCC's take on broadband policy.

Two weeks ago, the FCC issued a rulemaking that would absolve phone companies of any requirement to carry competitive Internet providers on their high-speed networks. The FCC's proposal is similar to one sponsored by Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) that the House passed last week. "They come in there just as the House is about to act," Lott told reporters after his speech. "It seems to me that's undercutting it."

With Lott one of the bill's major opponents in the Senate, joined by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the bill has virtually no chance of surviving there. Because Congress is unlikely to act on any broadband policy this year, what the FCC decides could have a major impact on the pace and direction of broadband deployment—one of Chairman Powell's top priorities, as he has said repeatedly since taking the helm in January 2001.

The FCC had no response to Lott's criticisms.

Lott also worried aloud about a decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to send the 35% national television ownership cap back to the FCC for reconsideration. "I have always supported some cap on ownership," he said. "I still think there is reason for it, merit for it, and I support it."

Lott's comments on the cap were music to the ears of his broadcaster audience because most local TV-station owners want the 35% cap left in place. They worry that the broadcast networks are too powerful and that soon there will be no more locally owned TV stations if deregulation continues apace. Powell has established himself as a deregulatory chairman, and his FCC is expected to increase the cap in the wake of last month's court decision.

For now, the 35% cap remains in place while the FCC considers its next move; although the networks and large station groups consider the decision a victory, the impact will not be felt immediately.

Lott also criticized the FCC for delaying a decision on whether Northpoint Technology should be given free access to direct-broadcast satellite spectrum. Finally, although he would not come out and expressly oppose EchoStar's proposed merger with DirecTV, he registered qualified opposition. "I am inclined right now to think that probably it is not healthy for competition and for even their own industry."