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LetterToTheEditor — Former congressman Clement calls for action from Congress

Dear Editor,

Americans have more choices than ever in today’s communications marketplace. I began my career as an elected representative of the people of Tennessee with six years of service on the state Public Service Commission, now known as the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. I represented the 5th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives for 15 years, and I voted in support of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Since my time at the PSC, and indeed since 1996, communications technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Whereas in the mid ‘90s hard-wired telephone lines provided all but a fraction of the voice communication service, in 2004, a variety of alternative services are available.

The most obvious development is in the usage of cellular telephones, and many folks now use cell phones exclusively. In 1996, there were approximately 20 million cell phone users. Today, that number is approaching 160 million. The number of land-line users has remained consistent, despite population increases. The trend is clear.

Now the concept of telephone calls placed over the Internet has become a reality. Voice over Internet Protocol is just the latest in a stream of new developments that is changing how we communicate — improving and expanding the choices available to all of us. Innovations like VoIP are especially important in rural areas where distances separate people from friends, family and new economic opportunities.

A decade ago, the Internet was a few years from becoming a household necessity, still more of a novelty than a tool. Today, it’s possible to get home telephone, cellular, cable and Internet service from the same provider. Consumers now can enjoy the convenience and lower prices that bundled services offer.

Consumer choice in telephone service and providers is good for America; it drives down prices and allows companies the opportunity to compete for business. The technological advances we’re seeing provide alternatives, and consumers dictate the success of a provider. That’s the way capitalism works.

The Telecom Act of 1996 was written to regulate the business practices of a small number of local and long-distance providers and to ensure competition in those markets. In addition, it was designed to stimulate investments in innovative technology, create jobs and ensure that everyone had access to basic service. It was a consumer protection measure, a leveling of the playing field, and it was the right thing to do at the time.

In today’s telecom climate, however, local telephone companies are regulated differently than cable and Internet companies, inadvertently creating an unfair advantage for the new providers entering the telephone market but not categorized as “telephone companies.”

A U.S. Appeals Court ruling earlier this month challenged the validity of forced below-cost line sharing as dictated in the 1996 Act, and I’m encouraged to hear that recent Congressional hearings on telecom policy reform will be the first of many leading up to a modernization of the nation’s telecom rules next year.

Modern telecom policy should reflect the realities of the new market, freeing up funds to bring new technology to communities large and small, rural and urban, and creating new jobs, better service and lower prices for everyone.

I call on Congress to bring these regulations into the 21st Century, today, for everyone’s benefit.


Bob Clement (D-Tenn.)

Former U.S. Rep., 5th District


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