Telecom war brews in federal market

It appears the federal government will serve as the battleground for a disagreement between competitive telecommunications companies, which want unencumbered access to offer their services in all office buildings, and the landlords who believe the companies should have to pay for such privileges.

Although the battle has been raging for more than a year, it became an issue for federal agencies late last month when Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) proposed the Competitive Access to Federal Buildings Act. The bill would give competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs)—usually defined as local phone companies other than the regional Bell operating companies—"reasonable and nondiscriminatory access" to offer their services within any building owned by or housing a federal agency.

In other words, Stevens wants to ensure that the CLECs, which have been growing in number since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, have the same chance to offer their services into federal buildings as the Bell companies that have an established presence in most buildings.

"While competition in the local telecommunications sector is growing, new entrants [in the market] lack the significant advantages of incumbent local exchange carriers when it comes to gaining access to many buildings," Stevens said in his introduction to the bill on June 29. "I believe the federal government should do more to ensure a level playing field for these new entrants to compete on."

The bill, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mo.), Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (R-N.D.), designates the National Telecommunications and Information Administration within the Commerce Department as responsible for ensuring that agencies comply with its requirements.

The Association for Local Telecommunications Services applauded Stevens' action last week, calling it "a step in the right direction" toward giving CLECs equal access to buildings throughout the country.

"It's a new issue in the federal arena but not in the private sector," said a spokeswoman for the association's Smart Buildings Policy Project. "What's happened is a lot of landlords have looked at this as an opportunity to charge these companies a lot of money for access to their buildings. The great thing about Sen. Stevens' bill is that he says it is the federal government's duty to set a good example."

Although Stevens' bill does not address access to private-sector buildings, the spokeswoman said that goal "is something we are working toward."

The bill has provoked a strong reaction among building owners who are represented by the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International. Gerry Lederer, vice president of government and industry affairs at BOMA, said his members do not object to giving their tenants access to the services provided by CLEC's. "We just don't think it's something the government needs to mandate," he said. "It's something we need to work out at the negotiating table. The marketplace works just fine.

Randy Lucas, vice president of sales and marketing at Bell Atlantic Federal, said his company was "closely monitoring" the progress of the legislation. "One concern is the definition of certain terms, such as 'commercial property' and how those definitions would impact Bell Atlantic equipment residing on government property," Lucas said.

He added that Bell Atlantic has established "conduit rental agreements" with CLECs to allow them "to utilize the Bell Atlantic network when they do not want to make an investment in their own infrastructure."A spokesman for the General Services Administration said officials there have not yet reviewed the legislation and could offer no comment. GSA owns and manages most of the buildings used by civilian federal agencies.

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