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Candidates Ignore Telecom Issues

5:00 PM -- CHICAGO -- 4G World 2012 -- In a candid moment during a press event here Wednesday, the newest member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) admitted it's not entirely possible to know how next week's U.S. presidential election will affect telecom policy for one simple reason.

"Telecom regulation has not played a prominent role in the race," said Ajit V. Pai, who joined the commission last May as a Republican commissioner.

Pai was at the other end of an iPhone -- mine as it so happened -- that was linked to the room's AV system so others could hear him, but it sounded like he'd issued that massive understatement with a straight face, or even a small smile. [Ed. note: Complications from Hurricane Sandy required Pai to participate from Washington, D.C.]

Telecom regulation has never played a prominent role in national elections and only occasionally earned the national spotlight between elections -- the Telecom Act of 1996 and the net neutrality battle come to mind as two exceptions to that rule. That has always seemed strange to me, given the significant role that a solid telecom infrastructure can play in economic development and how much our economy needs effective broadband connections to function and to continue to innovate.

It's particularly strange this time around because next week's election will have a dramatic impact on the telecom industry, which in turn could have a dramatic effect on the U.S. economy. I believe this is true for the simple reason that the Obama FCC has been the most active I've seen in the 27 years I've been covering the telecom industry.

In the course of less than four years, the FCC under Julius Genachowski has actually done what several previous commissions have said they were going to do, but never quite accomplished. That includes developing a National Broadband Plan to drive high-speed Internet access to places it doesn't exist today, and managing the long overdue reforms of funding institutions such as the Universal Service Fund and Intercarrier compensation.

Whatever else you think about the current FCC, you have to concede that they are a hardworking bunch, and they've done what they said they were going to do.

In addition, the Obama administration did something that has rarely happened since divestiture: It actually stood up to AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) on its T-Mobile US Inc. acquisition plan and forced Ma Bell to back down.

For many within telecom, however, this hardworking, gutsy bunch of folks is merely a collection of overstepping do-gooders whose regulations threaten private investment in telecom networks and whose ideas about funding rural broadband are having exactly the opposite effect as intended.

I spent four days in Las Vegas last week with a large group of rural telecom operators who would cheerfully pack the truck if it meant getting Obama home to Chicago more quickly. Many of them have followed the leadership of the NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association and joined national and state regulators in legally challenging the FCC's authority to change many of the rules regarding intercarrier compensation, among other things.

So do we have any idea what a Romney FCC would do? Sort of, but not really.

Pai says it would likely mean less regulation -- "a light touch" in his words -- that lets privately held companies mind their own business and encourages the market sort out most issues. And he believes the Republicans can be more aggressive in getting spectrum into the marketplace more quickly. This is one area where Genachowski and company are falling behind their own Broadband Plan goals.

That all makes sense, and fits the Romney rhetoric. But it would be refreshing to hear either one of the candidates at least mention telecom policy as a significant issue because it is, and not just for those engaged in the industry itself.

— Carol Wilson, Chief Editor, Events, Light Reading

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