Competition in domestic telecommunications is outrunning the federal government's ability to regulate the industry -- which would be bad if the government had a legitimate reason for staying in the race.

But two ranking federal officials said separately yesterday that the government should get off the track as soon as possible to help the nation take advantage of rapidly developing telecommunications services and technologies.

"In the evolution of the electronic marketplace, I believe Washington is now largely irrelevant....The real action is in the marketplace, not the government," Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, said in a speech at New York Law School yesterday.

Federal Communications Commissioner Mark S. Fowler, who sometimes has been at odds with Wirth on regulatory issues, agreed yesterday at a communications conference in New Orleans with the congressman's remarks.

Proposing a "regulations-free telecommunications market," Fowler said "regulation's role as a surrogate for competition" eventually will become "completely unnecessary."

"In my mind, we are heading ultimately ... toward a world where competitors offer an abundance of facilities and services constrained only by imagination and the capital market....The consumer needs to replace the bureaucrat on the throne of regulation," the FCC chairman said.

Under Fowler's reign, the FCC has moved to reduce paperwork involving license applications and has petitioned Congress -- unsuccessfully, so far -- to take the FCC out of the business of monitoring broadcast program content. Candidates for future deregulation efforts include new services, such as high-speed data transmissions, where no carrier yet dominates the market, Fowler said.

"Even in those instances where a particular firm has some power to control events in the overall market, discreet submarkets may be carved out where full competition may be workable. In such markets, we should not shy away from actions to free up the players," the FCC chairman said.

Fowler said the FCC's future role probably should be limited to policing the allocation of broadcast frequencies to prevent competing interests from usurping legitimately held bands. "Our goal must be effective competition, not effective regulation," he said.

Wirth said the declining importance of federal regulation in the telecommunications and electronic industries should encourage young entrepreneurs to heed the mandate: "Go ye forth and invest in new services and programming, not lawyers and lobbyists."