There were two recent announcements in the industry that has to have the rural telephone industry shaking their heads a little. The announcements are not specifically negative, but they are indicative of the fact that the industry has lost a lot of influence in Washington.
First, the president has announced the nomination of Tom Wheeler as the new head of the FCC. His background is as a high-powered lobbyist, and he was the head of both the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) from 1979 to 1984 and CTIA – the Wireless Association from 1992 to 2004.
His nomination has come with mixed reviews from the industry with many fearing that he will favor issues that promote the wireless industry. But there have been others who know him who think he will be a fair arbiter and will step up to the position. As someone in the industry I obviously share the trepidation that he would prefer one industry over another, and I would have the same concern regardless of which industry he formerly lobbied for. I’m not a big fan of putting lobbyists into powerful government positions overseeing the industry they once represented. That just seems to be asking for trouble and at the very best adds complication to every decision they make in their new role. I can certainly see how small telcos in particular could feel uneasy about this nomination.
The other news I saw was that Representatives Peter Welch (D-Vermont) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio) announced the formation of a bipartisan working group as part of the Energy and Commerce Committee that was going to focus on rural telecommunications issues. The group will be known as the Rural Telecommunications Working Group.
This new group is going to focus on a range of issues including call completion (meaning making sure that everybody can call everybody), broadband access and speeds, and wireless spectrum.
Other members of the Rural Telecommunications Working Group include: John Barrow (D-GA), Bruce Braley (D-IA), G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Lois Capps (D-CA), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Renee Ellmers (R-NC), Corey Gardner (R-CO), H. Morgan Griffith (R-VA), Brett Guthrie (R-KY), Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Billy Long (R-MO), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), Doris Matsui (D-CA), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Lee Terry (R-NE), and Paul Tonko (D-NY).
It is certainly good that Congress started this working group, because having anybody look at rural issues is a positive. But I did notice that there are more representatives in the group from large urban states than there are from truly rural areas. Any old-timer (like me) with a rural telco background will remember that there used to be a strong coalition in Congress who fostered rural telephony issues. But in recent years the rural telecom support in Congress largely faded away, due in part to retirements of Congressmen who supported rural telephony and due to other factors like the growth of the wireless industry. I appreciate that this new group has been formed, but it makes me remember a day when rural companies could depend on the support of Congress.
These two announcements made me realize that the political world has changed as much as the technological world for the rural telco industry. When I got into the telecom world there was no such thing as a cell phone, and now somebody who was the head lobbyist for that industry might be the next head of the FCC. Who woulda thunk it?