A Federal Communications Commission staff study has concluded that the agency has no legal power to use its equipment certification authority as a weapon in the trade dispute between U.S. and foreign telecommunications equipment manufacturers.

The study was requested by FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, who said in January that he would like to use that authority to help bring balance to an area of trade in which U.S. manufacturers are faring poorly.

"After studying the existing provisions of the [1934] Communications Act, the bureau staff has concluded that, absent an amendment to the act or other specific grant of statutory authority, it is far from clear that the commission could lawfully amend its rules to withhold its certification of foreign equipment on trade reciprocity grounds," the report said.

The FCC is empowered to test and certify telecommunications equipment that will be linked to telephone networks in the United States. Fowler had suggested that the agency could use this certification procedure "as a possible means of assuring reciprocal openness in the Japanese telecommunications market."

"This is not a protectionist move," he added. "The idea is one of fostering free and open markets."

Fowler, who was also quoted as saying foreign countries are "dealing with Uncle Sam, not Uncle Sucker," then instructed the FCC's common carrier bureau to explore the agency's legal authority in the area.

The FCC study concluded there was no way of creating what Fowler had called "a mirroring device" to make foreign equipment certification as slow in the United States as it is in the exporting country.

However, there are several congressional actions pending that could grant the commission the necessary authority to do what the staff study said it may not do now. Reps. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) and James Florio (D-N.J.) have introduced the Telecommunications Trade Act of 1985 in which the 1934 Communications Act would be modified so that the FCC "has the authority to implement any telecommunications market access enforcement actions the president determines to be necessary or appropriate."

Three other bills would give the FCC new powers to alter the balance of telecommunications trade by placing sanctions on foreign manufacturers whose governments discriminate against U.S. telecommunications manufacturers.

The FCC has "made no determination yet" as to whether it supports any of the legislation, according to chief of staff Jerald Fritz.

The issue has become increasingly intense as Japan's telecommunications trade surplus continues to mount. The U.S. telecomunications trade deficit with Japan jumped from $1.2 billion in 1983 to more than $1.9 billion in 1984.