By EDWARD OHNEMUS
The former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee said March 6 that changes in the law governing the telecommunications industry are just beginning to have an impact now, a year after the 1996 law was signed.
Former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) delivered the keynote address at the annual Federal Library and Information Center Committee Forum to about 150 people in the Library's Mumford Room.
Describing the legislation in layman's terms, Mr. Pressler said, "We wanted to start getting everybody into everybody else's business, so the fellow who provides local telephone service can also provide long distance service or compete in another market, or that new entrants or small businesses can come in and start and compete and have access to the wires."
Daniel P. Mulhollan, Congressional Research Service director, introduced Mr. Pressler to the forum on behalf of Dr. Billington, who was delayed in returning from a trip to California.
During his remarks, Mr. Pressler said that the law changes the relationships among companies that provide telecommunications services," which include primarily:
- local telephone service,
- long distance telephone service,
- radio and television broadcasting,
- cable television, and
- wireless communications, such as cellular telephones.
Other parties affected by the 1996 law include electric utilities, burglar alarm companies, schools and libraries, he said.
"Libraries and schools will be most interested in the 'universal service' provisions of the bill," he said. Under these provisions, schools and libraries are to be given discounted rates for telecommunications services. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must issue the rules for this part of the law by May 8, he said. Other changes in the law will take effect in two to five years, and the Federal Communications Commission is still working on issuing all the new regulations. No one knows exactly how the telecommunications industry will change in the years to come, he said.
"Over the long term, we hope that competition in telecommunications will benefit all other markets, but it's important to remember that everything in the law does not take effect right away," Mr. Pressler said.
He explained that the Communications Act of 1934 had created many separate and distinct business areas from which companies were not allowed to stray.
"What the Communications Act of 1934 and its progeny allowed was ... 'apartheid' in companies and services, so our telecommunications services were divided up among different companies and groups. For example, we had the regional Bell companies, which did local telephone service; we had the long distance companies. ... Then we had the cable people and the broadcasters. ... We had all sorts of other players, such as the utilities, which couldn't get into telecommunications. So we had this balkanized system in the United States [with] everybody [having] their monopoly or their area, and none of them really wanted to change."
Cellular telephone technology has changed the situation somewhat, he said, and many developing countries are skipping the costly "copper wire phase" of telephone service and jumping straight into cellular service.
Now in private practice as the head of his own consulting firm, Pressler Group LLC, Mr. Pressler is a former Rhodes Scholar. After graduating from the University of South Dakota in 1964, he attended Oxford University. From 1966 to 1968, he served in the Army, including duty in Vietnam. In 1971 he earned his law and master's degrees from the Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. From 1971 to 1974, Mr. Pressler worked in the Office of the Legal Advisor to the Secretary of State.
In 1974 he was elected to the House of Representatives from South Dakota, and in 1978 he won a Republican seat in the Senate. He served in the Senate from 1979 through the end of the 104th Congress in 1996.
In 1996, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Mr. Pressler oversaw the first full rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act and also led the joint House-Senate conference committee on the telecommunications bill, which President Clinton signed as Public Law 104-104 in the Library's Main Reading Room on Feb. 8 (see LC Information Bulletin, Feb. 19, 1996).
Mr. Ohnemus is assistant editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newspaper.