WASHINGTON — The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday that the agency plans to offer rivals of the regional Bell phone companies new incentives to encourage them to build competing networks.
In his second news briefing since taking office in January, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell also said it is unlikely his agency will reach a quick settlement with bankrupt wireless phone carrier NextWave Telecom Inc., which now controls $16.8 billion worth of airwaves that the FCC wants to transfer to other wireless carriers.
Powell's most pointed comments focused on FCC policy initiatives aimed at encouraging more telephone competition, including a faster roll-out of high-speed Internet access.
Powell did not outline steps the agency would take, but he reiterated a position that freeing carriers from government regulation is the key to boosting competition.
"The widespread deployment of broadband has probably become the central communications policy objective of today," Powell said.
Citing the failure of the landmark Telecommunications Act of 1996 to jump-start telecommunications competition, Powell added that: "I think it's time to reconsider the best approach to achieving meaningful competition. We now have almost six years of real-world experience." That's time enough, Powell said, to "make a prudent midcourse correction."
Reaction to Powell's proposal was split among industry officials. Consumer watchdog groups have long contended that the incumbent local phone companies have thwarted the 1996 Telecom Act by denying competitors fair access to crucial phone company facilities that link homes and businesses to the public phone network.
But Peter Pitch, a lobbyist for chip giant Intel Corp., said he "applauded" Powell's statement and added that "a different regulatory approach would help jump-start the rollout of broadband."
However, Mark Uncapher, a vice president at the Information Technology Assn. of America, a suburban Washington trade group, cautioned that few companies may be willing to challenge incumbent phone companies, especially in the current environment where even big carriers such as SBC Communications Inc. have announced a slowdown in revenue.
Uncapher added that Congress set out very specific rules of competition in the 1996 Telecom Act in an effort to jump-start competition. "To simply walk away from that and say, 'Gee it's all competitive now,' will give incumbents huge advantages."