The past four weeks have been anxious ones for dozens of lobbyists and executives who regularly work the Federal Communications Commission. The agency is putting the final touches on a series of regulations that will set the ground rules for competition in high-speed Internet access and local telephone service for the next several years.
The final regulations are likely to include more than 400 pages of detailed rules that have generated millions of dollars in legal and lobbying fees. After last month's vote on the broad outlines of the new policies, companies have already promised lawsuits challenging the rules even though it may be another four weeks before the regulations finally emerge from the overworked agency. It has been a suspenseful wait for lawyers, lobbyists and others whose livelihood depends on the outcome. They can only guess at the details since the FCC has a ban on contact with the agency from a week before a decision until the day the final order is issued.
Of course, the ban on lobbying hasn't stopped companies from trying to influence the final decision.
SBC Communications Inc., one of the nation's largest local telephone companies, has taken out a series of print-media ads on the rules that are probably incomprehensible to all but the dozens of Capitol Hill insiders who follow the issue.
Verizon Communications Inc., meanwhile, announced last week that it would roll out high-speed Internet service to 10 million more homes in the coming year, a claim some rivals and analysts suggested was aimed more at an inside-the-Beltway audience than actual customers.
One of Verizon's top lobbyists confirmed yesterday that the announcement was, in part, a response to another television advertising campaign sponsored by rivals in the long-distance industry. That campaign, titled "The Big Lie," chastised Verizon and other local telephone companies for backing away from plans to invest in high-speed Internet networks after the FCC vote did not give the telecommunications giant all it sought. Verizon Vice President for Regulatory Advocacy Gordon R. Evans said the company wanted to respond to the "Big Lie" campaign. "That was a factor [in last week's decision] because it was not true," Evans said.
But there are other ways to influence the commission aside from flashy advertisements and dramatic announcements about future business plans.
Although lobbyists and lawyers can't discuss the regulations in question with the FCC, there are no rules barring Congress from trying to influence the agency's decision-making process. Few people know that better than Commissioner Kevin J. Martin, who was on the receiving end of an angry phone call from House Commerce Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), a key ally of the large local phone companies. The call came a few days before last month's vote.
One source referred to congressional attempts to influence the agency as "bank-shot lobbying" by interested parties.
"My only chance is to get Congress to talk to them [the commissioners] or make sure they read about it in the newspapers," said Mark Cooper, research director of the Consumer Federation of America.
Cooper has asked members of Congress to reverse a portion of the decision that would end a requirement that telephone companies share their networks with rivals. "We urge you [to] contact the members of the Commission and encourage them to reconsider their decision," Cooper and several other interested parties wrote in a letter to members of Congress yesterday.
There are important exceptions to the rule banning contact between lobbyists and the FCC during blackout periods.
The biggest allows lobbyists to make presentations to the agency at the request of an FCC commissioner. Evans noted that Verizon had recently responded to questions from Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy with a long presentation about its contracts with rivals. These solicited contacts must be disclosed in "ex parte" filings with the FCC.
"We look at all the ex parte filings all the time," Evans said. "That's how we know who is talking to who and what about."
But the ex parte process has led to some resentment by those lobbyists who don't get regular calls from commissioners to expand on their positions or explain a marketplace condition.
Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm that lobbies the FCC on media issues, often has been frustrated by the ex parte exemption. "It is the thing that drives me crazy," said Schwartzman, who almost always opposes FCC decisions that have the support of the nation's biggest media companies and their dozens of lobbyists. Schwartzman said he has been invited to discuss matters directly with commissioners only two or three times during his 25-year tenure lobbying the agency.
"I'm not in the in crowd," Schwartzman said.