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Sununu: Katrina's Effects May Split Telecom Legislation

Communications shortcomings exposed by Katrina’s wrath have increased Congress’s focus on the pending transition of television spectrum, perhaps at the expense of other pressing issues, Sen. John Sununu said at a conference this week.

BOSTON -- The effects of Hurricane Katrina are still being felt in the halls of Congress, leading to a fractured focus that may delay action on certain telecom reform issues, according to Sen. John Sununu.

Speaking here at the Fall VON conference, commerce committee member Sununu (R-N.H.) said that communications shortcomings exposed by Katrina’s wrath have increased Congress’s focus on the pending transition of television spectrum, perhaps at the expense of other pressing issues important to the members of the IP-related communications industry gathered here.

“We’re going to see spectrum [legislation] by the end of this year,” predicted Sununu, who said the twin attributes of spectrum transition -- mainly better access for first responders, and the perhaps billions of dollars that might be derived from the auction of the spectrum -- should speed legislative action. What might get pushed aside for the time being, he said, are issues such as the reform of universal service or national franchising rules for IP-based television, which might not be addressed by lawmakers until 2006 at the earliest.

Sununu, for one, expressed dismay at the state of the nation’s emergency communications infrastructure, which failed miserably in the aftermath of Katrina. According to Sununu, Congress has spent billions of dollars on homeland security communications projects, “and there still appear to be significant interoperability problems,” he said. “Shame on me for assuming that money was well spent.”

The IP communications industry, Sununu said, needs to step forward now and “clearly level criticism where it’s due” about the existing communications infrastructure, which did not stand up to the floods or winds brought by Katrina to the Gulf region.

“IP, in the long run, will be more reliable and secure than the analog system[s],” Sununu said. “I think there is a lingering false assumption [in Congress] about the performance characteristics of an IP system, and that it will always be what it is today.”

Sununu, who has long been a friend to the Voice over IP industry (to the point of trying to pass deregulatory VoIP legislation last year), earned more kudos from the faithful here by questioning some of the recent moves by the Federal Communications Commission under new chairman Kevin Martin.

“I’m not quite sure what the FCC was thinking,” Sununu said, about the agency’s establishment earlier this summer of a 120-day timeframe for VoIP providers to implement emergency 911 services. Cutting off someone’s phone service because they didn’t have emergency access, he said, could inflict “much more damage than any [emergency] system benefits.”

Had the agency’s original deadlines stayed in place, Sununu noted, the President might not have been able to connect with the mayor of New Orleans via a VoIP link. Perhaps the use of VoIP in recovery and rescue efforts, Sununu said, might cause “some light bulbs to go on at the FCC” about the technology’s worth.

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