< Commerce Claws

Transcript

Friday, February 09, 2007

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And I'm Brooke Gladstone. When the power in Congress shifted to Democrats last month, so did the leadership of all the Congressional committees. In both chambers, the Commerce Committee has purview over communications, and therefore over a range of media issues from net neutrality to consolidation.



On the Senate side, Republican Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens ceded control to Democrat Daniel Inouye. It was Stevens, you may remember, who displayed an unusual gift for metaphor when describing the Internet.

TED STEVENS:

The Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled, and if they're filled when you put your message in, it gets in line, it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay. As for the House, after a long break, Michigan Democrat John Dingell returns to the Commerce Committee chair. He's already slated hearings with the Federal Communications Commission for late next week. Dingell, who has served in the House for more than 50 years, has a reputation for strong oversight. John Dingell joins me now from his office in Washington. Chairman, welcome to the show.

JOHN DINGELL:

I'm glad to be here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So can we start off with a relatively low-profile issue that still could dramatically change the cable TV landscape, video franchising? And for our listeners, basically the telephone companies, AT&T and Verizon, want to offer their own cable service to compete with Comcast and Time Warner and the rest.



In December, the FCC voted to make it easier for phone companies to enter the cable market, but you say that the FCC overstepped its authority. And you've even talked about a legislative fix. How come?

JOHN DINGELL:

Well, let's look at this. I favor the telephone companies being able to get into cable and into broadband service. I think that this is a very necessary step.



What I'm saying is that the FCC has made several mistakes. First, they have not had a proper list of findings about public interests and the public convenience and necessity.



Second of all, they have disregarded the law in asserting powers, which the statute does not give them. And third of all, they have not addressed the broader questions, which need to be addressed, about seeing to it that consumers of these services are fairly treated and this is a bit of an arrogance on the part of the FCC.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Fair enough. What about the issue of media consolidation? We've seen as many as eight radio stations owned by a single company in a single market. Your colleague in the Senate, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, called the FCC's media ownership policies a "spectacular failure."



This is, again, the FCC's purview. They were turned away by the courts when they tried to loosen ownership restrictions. What do you think the role of the Congress is here?

JOHN DINGELL:

First of all, I don't like that much multiple ownership, and that will be one of the questions in which the committee will be going, to see to it that we have enough competition that the consumers of telecommunication services are properly treated.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So you're looking toward perhaps a legislative solution to this problem?

JOHN DINGELL:

We will be exploring that. Because remember that localism – in other words, local service – diversity in media - are absolute essentials in seeing to it that the law is properly carried out.



The FCC tends to be a bit slovenly on this. The court was right in overruling the FCC on ownership restrictions and the fact that they were fixing them too high. But the court's order in that case was not definitive because it was on a number of issues, and the matter will now go back to the FCC for consideration.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay. Another big issue, one that we've talked about a lot on this show, is net neutrality. In a nutshell, Internet service providers want to create a fast tier and a slow tier for information, and if you're an Internet company with deep pockets, you could pay extra for your content to be delivered faster. Opponents say this violates the democratic spirit of the Internet.

JOHN DINGELL:

Well, the law requires that there be universal service. There's an honest question whether doing away with universal service and allowing special treatment of this kind of conforms with either the law or with good public policy.



This is one of the questions in which I intend to go in the committee, and it is one of the questions that has to be addressed to see to it that everybody, rich, poor, living in the good parts of town or in the poor parts of town, ordinary citizens and large data producers, are all fairly and properly treated.



I happen to believe that seeing to it that there be network neutrality are extremely important, and I think that it is also extremely important that we require the cable companies or the new entrants into the cable business or the broadband business to do the build-out that is necessary, that they make competition available to every American everywhere, regardless of his means.



And that's one of the defects in what the FCC is doing, it is one of the defects in what the telephone companies want. And it's not something that I'm going to let them do if I can avoid it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

One last question: Obviously, next week, FCC chairman Kevin Martin will face you, and you've expressed concern that while the FCC has overstepped its authority in some areas, it's a little too demure in others – notably when Commissioner Martin said that the FCC was not able to investigate whether phone companies were turning over personal phone records to the National Security Agency.

JOHN DINGELL:

Well, we will have many questions for Mr. Martin, and these questions will relate to the kind of job he's doing, whether he is carrying out his responsibilities in protecting the public interest and whether new statutory authority is needed. And all those matters will be gone into with considerable vigor -

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS]

JOHN DINGELL:

- and enthusiasm by the Commerce Committee.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

But it is your position that the FCC ought to have been to investigate whether phone companies had turned over those documents.

JOHN DINGELL:

I would think that that is an absolute necessity to him carrying out his responsibilities, but we're going to ask him why he hasn't done so. And then we'll have a better answer for you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Congressman, thank you very much.

JOHN DINGELL:

You have a good day.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Michigan Democrat John Dingell is Chairman of the House Commerce Committee.