Citizens Knocking on FCC's Door

Times Staff Writer

The last time Heidi E. Neal came here was as a teenager on a high school trip, gawking at the monuments. Last week, the 32-year-old Palmdale woman was back, this time rushing from meeting to meeting with federal regulators to discuss the arcane rules of national telecommunications policy.

"I'm just a housewife," said Neal, a mother of four who took an interest in the politics of phones late last year and requested the meetings at the Federal Communications Commission after her husband, an SBC Communications Inc. technician, learned that he might get laid off.

"I'm not coming to Washington on behalf of some corporation," she said. "I'm coming to support my husband, who could lose his job."

The unusual face-to-face sessions with FCC Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Kevin J. Martin and top staffers in two other commissioners' offices were heady experiences for Neal.

But they also were valuable for FCC officials, who say they are eager to get feedback from ordinary Americans as opposed to Washington insiders.

"I think the meeting was useful," said Copps, a Democrat who has campaigned for more input from outside Washington.

Soliciting such grass-roots voices has become all the more important, FCC officials say, as the agency prepares to make pivotal decisions on telecommunications competition and media ownership.

That those decisions might be even slightly influenced by her input keeps Neal motivated.

She credits her determination and organizational skills to raising four daughters. Full of nervous energy, she said, she spent nights surfing the Web to bone up on telecom issues after making peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for her kids' lunches.

The background came in handy during two hours of meetings, she said.

"All of the people I met were very pleasant," Neal said afterward. "But I reminded them that there is a family behind every worker that loses a job" in the struggling telecommunications industry.

All five FCC commissioners say their doors are open to anyone -- including individual consumers who have no connection to the issues beyond watching TV, reading the newspaper or dialing a phone.

Yet the commissioners acknowledge that they rarely get requests for meetings from individuals not part of an organization. The relative absence of face-to-face contact with individual consumers is significant, experts say, because federal regulators realize that they can't possibly read through the thousands of pages of public comments and e-mails filed by people unable to visit Washington.

By contrast, industry lobbyists are such a common sight in the FCC's Washington headquarters that one of them, veteran Washington communications lawyer Richard E. Wiley, is called the sixth FCC commissioner.

"The FCC, for 70 years, has been criticized for being far too responsive to the organized interests in Washington who have paid lobbyists," said Andrew Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project, a Washington advocacy group active on media issues.

"By federal government standards, the FCC does better than most in reaching out," he said. "But given the public importance of the issues they decide -- from the Internet to 1st Amendment matters -- they fall far short."

Deborah A. Lathen, former head of the FCC's cable bureau, agreed that "the insiders have a great advantage."

"We always heard from the usual suspects," she said. "You could virtually write their position papers for them because they had already been in your office several times to lobby you on an issue."

Even some professional lobbyists say they believe that greater citizen input could lead to better decisionmaking and less industry infighting.

"Right now FCC rule makings are an insider's baseball game," said Steve Perry, who represents rivals of the regional Bell phone companies. "I think if there's one Achilles' heel of our government, it is that not enough people feel vested in it. Whether it's the IRS or the FCC, most people don't feel like they really have a say."

Industry, Not Citizens

The disparity of citizen and industry contact with the FCC was underscored in a study published two years ago by Fordham University assistant professor Philip M. Napoli. He found that individual consumers "were, by far, the least likely to formally" submit written comments on FCC proceedings.

Napoli's study, which examined FCC mass media proceedings from 1992 to 1997, found that broadcasters filed more than 10 times as many formal comments with the FCC as did individual citizens. Napoli also discovered that comments by broadcasters were cited more often by the FCC and appeared to have a bigger effect on agency decisions.

"The more intensive the participation you have at the FCC, the more influence you have over the process," Napoli said in an interview.

Watchdog groups such as Media Access Project and Consumers Union lobby the FCC on behalf of consumers. But a former chairman of the FCC said these efforts pale in comparison with those generated by an army of industry lobbyists who buttonhole commissioners and their staffs at every opportunity.

"You have to struggle to find the right balance" between consumers and industry, said former FCC Chairman William E. Kennard, who said he made a point of seeking consumers outside Washington for new ideas.

Today, the Internet has helped those outside the normal lobbying ranks to level the playing field somewhat.

Neal started her campaign online in October, after her husband called from work to say he might be among the 11,000 workers SBC planned to lay off in the coming months. She immediately started scouring the Web in search of answers and didn't like what she found.

SBC blamed the firings on federal regulations, who the company and the other regional Bell companies say cripple their ability to compete. SBC, which is California's dominant local phone company, objects in particular to rules requiring it to lease its lines and equipment to competing carriers at discounted rates.

The rule grew out of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and was intended to promote competition by allowing long-distance companies to sell local service and local companies to sell long-distance service. As a result, long-distance carriers such as AT&T; Corp. and WorldCom Inc. have moved aggressively into local markets dominated by the regional Baby Bells.

Neal says she has not been financed or otherwise encouraged by SBC, though the Bells have been known to quietly enlist local supporters from across the country -- including unions and churches -- to help them make their case with regulators.

But the company certainly shares her worldview, which puts her at odds with most consumer groups. They say the lease arrangements are the only way to encourage more competition in the residential phone market.

"I don't think it's fair for local phone companies to have to subsidize their competition," said Neal, who launched a Web site at www.momsavesjobs.org, where she posts encouraging messages from other Baby Bell employees facing the same job cuts as SBC workers. The site also knocks the "wolves" in the long-distance industry.

The emergence of the Internet has served the FCC as well, helping the agency to stimulate greater public debate on communications policy issues.

K. Dane Snowden, chief of consumer and governmental affairs at the FCC, said the agency's Web site receives more than 80 million hits a month. The agency also maintains a toll-free line for consumer comments, he said, and investigations of aggressive telemarketing practices were triggered initially by the public's complaints.

Nonetheless, Neal quickly recognized that nothing beats the kind of intimacy that lobbyists routinely enjoy.

To help defray the cost of her trip, Neal said, a retired SBC manager donated his airline frequent flier miles to cover her flight to Washington. She raised the remaining $500 in travel expenses from donations to her Web site.

Lobbyists Skeptical

The emergence of citizen activists such as Neal has left some industry veterans wondering what to make of individuals corralling federal regulators. However, some AT&T; executives -- without citing any evidence -- say they believe that SBC is encouraging Neal's efforts.

"What her real motivation is, is anybody's guess, but I think she's barking up the wrong tree," AT&T; spokesman Gordon Diamond said. "Jobs cuts are unfortunate. But blaming regulators for SBC's layoffs is just plain wrong."

Neal said that although Commissioner Copps and his staff members were skeptical of her position that the FCC was the cause of the local phone industry's financial woes, colleague Martin seemed more sympathetic.

"He said Congress made these rules, and now the FCC has to try and make them work," Neal recounted. "But he seemed very sensitive to the fact that people are losing their jobs.

"The biggest success of my trip," Neal said, before flying home Friday, "is putting a human face on the issues that the FCC deals with. They asked for ... input, and I came here to give it to them."

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