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January 24, 2003

Cell Industry Balks at FCC Rules

From: Wired News - 24 Jan 2003

Disgruntled over Federal Communications Commission rules meant to protect cell-phone customers, deaf Americans and historical sites near cell towers, a major cell-phone industry lobbying group has decided to take its grievances to Capitol Hill.

In a move one government watchdog group called "unusual," the lobbying group -- Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association -- vented its frustration over some FCC rules in a 339-page document (PDF) submitted to Congress last week.

While it isn't unusual for lawmakers to hear from lobbyists, it is rare for the president's executive Office of Management and Budget to relay public opinion to Congress on the policies of an independent regulatory agency like the FCC, said Shan Ferguson, a writer and programmer for OMB Watch.

"It's one thing for OMB to tell the Coast Guard what to do, because OMB provides money to the Coast Guard," Ferguson said. "But the FCC is an independent agency directly commissioned by Congress. It is not an executive-branch agency."

The OMB did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The CTIA said the report, which was a compilation of comments from the public, included other industries' concerns. "It's not because the wireless industry is special," said Travis Larson, CTIA spokesman.

This may be the only way for the wireless industry group to get the FCC to budge on certain rules.

CTIA has already tried to negotiate with the agency on a rule that requires wireless carriers to let their customers change service providers without having to give up their cell-phone numbers. The FCC says customers want the freedom to switch.

But CTIA says the mandate, which cell-phone companies must meet by Nov. 24, creates an unfair economic burden on carriers.

"Consider both the costs and benefits associated with wireless local number portability and use this analysis to determine whether the regulatory mandate is truly warranted," the OMB report read.

The CTIA and the country's largest wireless carrier -- Verizon Wireless -- are suing the FCC over the rule. In the OMB report, the wireless association said it wants Congress to make the FCC excuse the industry from the requirement or at least grant it another extension on the upcoming deadline. The original deadline has already been pushed back one year.

"We're not shy about pursuing any other means that will achieve our goal on local number portability," Larson said.

An FCC spokeswoman said she has not seen the OMB report, but that the deadline on the local telephone portability rule remains Nov. 24. She also said the CTIA has not sent a petition asking for another extension on the deadline.

But the CTIA has plenty of other complaints.

Perhaps the most galling recommendation in the eyes of OMB Watch's Ferguson is CTIA's attempt to get out of complying with a rule that requires the industry to make sure its technology is backwards compatible with traditional "TTY" and "TDD" text machines used by the deaf.

"The FCC has said carriers with enhanced 911 (the ability to pinpoint the location of cell-phone callers who dial 911 in an emergency) should support and continue to support TDDs and TTYs," Ferguson. "The wireless folks are saying, 'We'd rather not. Let the deaf folks get cell phones.'"

That pretty much sums up the CTIA's position, too.

"Rather than take new digital equipment and make it compatible with 1970s technology, we should be encouraging the deaf to adopt one of these new technologies, such as text messaging and BlackBerry devices, which carry out many of the same functions this antiquated equipment does, and even do it much better," Larson said.

Maybe. But some people in the deaf community expressed unease at waiting for the cell-phone industry to cater to them on its own timeline.

Twenty-eight million people have severe to absolute hearing loss in the United States, according to experts.

"While (our group) supports all efforts to increase accessibility to the marketplace, past experiences have shown that voluntary enhancements are few and far between," wrote Jim House, spokesman for Telecommunications for the Deaf, in an e-mail. "Only since last summer have digital handsets been compatible with TTYs. This only happened because the industry was under pressure from the FCC to make voice and text calls from cell phones identifiable by location. It took about five years for this to happen.

"And we should not have to pay more than the average person to get functionally equivalent services," wrote House, who is deaf.

CTIA also wants the FCC to exempt certain cell towers and antennas from a review process that ensures that the equipment poses no hazards to historic properties.

Under an agreement between the FCC, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, building on cell towers already constructed on or before March 16, 2001 (the day the review process was implemented) is usually allowed without further scrutiny. But a review is required when a new antenna could make the cell tower substantially taller, in cases where the tower has been determined by the FCC to affect a historic property, when an environmental-impact report on the tower is pending or in the event that the FCC receives a complaint from a member of the public.

The CTIA wants some of its industry's cell towers -- the ones built on or before the day this agreement was struck -- out of this review process altogether, according to the OMB report.

"(My comment) is not specifically to historical preservation," Larson said, "but (cell-tower) siting has always been a challenge to the wireless industry. Every time a wireless carrier is told they can't build a tower in a certain place, it means that consumers are not receiving the coverage they need to make phone calls. That means more dropped calls and busy signals for consumers."

But would customers prefer a perfect cell-phone call to preserving George Washington's childhood home? How about a clear call to an unsafe flight?

The FCC spokeswoman said a review of all cell towers is necessary because if the towers are more than 200 feet high, they may pose a hazard to air navigation. "That requires coordination with the FAA," she said.

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