[ Text Version | WordPerfect Version | News Release ]

Remarks of William E. Kennard
Chairman, Federal Communications Commission
Consumer Federation of America
Annual Conference

Washington, DC
March 19, 1999

(as prepared for delivery)

Thank you, Rich, for that very generous introduction.

Over Christmas, I was down in South Carolina visiting with my wife's family. Now, she is from a small town and her father is a minister. So everyone knows everybody, and no one's shy about speaking their mind.

After dinner one night, I was talking with one of her uncles about all that was going on in Washington -- and I don't just mean telecomm law. He said that the problem is that people just aren't involved. They don't read the newspapers. They don't vote. They don't write their congressman.

I said, "You're right. You've identified the two biggest problems in America today: ignorance and apathy. So what should we do about it?" And he says, "I don't know and I don't care."

Too many Americans -- young, old, black, white -- are ignoring public policy. They're turned off and tuned out. For those of us in public service, it's often discouraging. But looking around this room and seeing all of you, I feel good. Because you are dedicated -- not just today, not just this week, but all year -- to tackling the important issues facing our nation.

I want to thank Rich, Steve, and all of you for your hard work. But more than that, I want to thank you for fighting for American families who spend thousands of dollars each year buying products and services, but who can't spend the millions of dollars for their own Washington lobbyists. For them, you play that role. You're their agents -- and our agents -- for change.

I come to you to report from the center of a whirlwind, the whirlwind of telecommunications.

Over the past decade -- even less -- how we communicate with our friends, family, business colleagues, and elected officials has changed profoundly. This could be the most profound change underway in our society today.

70 million Americans have a mobile phone.

More people are sending data, like e-mail, over the phone lines than using them to talk.

Americans of all ages are on-line not just talking, not just surfing, but shopping. Last Christmas, almost 10 million households spent $3 billion buying gifts on-line. E-commerce may be one of the most dynamic markets of our lifetime.

In a world of increasing competition and rapid technological change, the promise for our country is unlimited. Already, one-third of our current economic growth -- the longest peacetime economic expansion in history -- is due to the information technology sector.

But the benefits to us all go beyond prosperity. Edward R. Murrow once said about television that, "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate and, yes, it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is nothing but wires and lights in a box."

This is the same with the Internet. Its promise is that it can make us better as a society, as a nation.

It can better educate our children as any kid anywhere can get everything written by Yeats or written on the Yankees.

It can make us safer. Now, if you're lost in a snowstorm or at sea and have a mobile phone, we can find you and send help, even if you can't make a call.

And as these technologies come to our living rooms, telecommuting and e-commerce become easier, making it possible to spend more time with our families instead of waiting in traffic or standing in line.

Now, there are those who look at the advances of the past few years, and say to me, "Great work. Now, go away."

Content with how far we've come and seeing the world of competition coming into focus, they believe that consumers should be left to go at it alone. That the time for the FCC has passed.

Well, this may be the FCC's 65th year, but this is no time for the FCC to retire.

In a telecommunications marketplace where competition is king, there is even a greater need for the FCC. Not to impose top-down, centralized regulation - no, that would stifle innovation and snuff out economic growth - but to protect the public interest, to protect consumers.

When telecom providers want to consolidate, the FCC - and the FCC alone - is the only body here in Washington that looks at how such mergers might harm the public interest.

This is what we did with the AT&T-TCI merger, and that is the standard that we're using to scrutinize the other major mergers now before us. This is our mission: to make sure that the invisible hand does not become an invisible slap in the face of the American people.

And in a dynamic and robust marketplace, the FCC is the only agency out there that understands the telecom industry and has the expertise to make sure that consumers are protected from those unscrupulous companies that would rather cheat than compete for customers.

Unfortunately, we already are seeing this occur in the long-distance marketplace. As competition heats up, some companies are slamming unsuspecting consumers, switching their long distance without their permission.

Last year, the FCC received a record 20,000 slamming complaints. Let me share one of them with you -- a handwritten letter from a woman in upstate New York. She wrote:

"I am writing this note to you because this company took advantage of my 82-year old hard-of-hearing husband to change our local phone provider. We did not authorize this to be changed. I am saddened to think these things can happen. I will not pay any of this bill and worry when my husband will answer the phone. I hope you can be of some help to me."

Well, the FCC is helping. We have adopted a new policy toward slammers. It's called: zero tolerance. Over the past year, we dramatically stepped up enforcement. We hit slammers with $13 million in fines -- including the largest single fine in FCC history. And for the first time, we pulled the plug on a slammer, putting him out of the phone business for good.

And in May, tough new rules will take effect. Now, Americans who've had their phone company illegally switched won't get slammed with a bogus bill. After all, asking a customer to pay for being slammed is like asking a crime victim to pay the fine of the criminal. We're taking the profit out of slamming altogether.

Because of our vigorous action, slammers are now becoming an endangered species. And let me tell you that my goal as chairman of the FCC is to make them extinct.

Consumers have many choices today, but too many are confused. The answer is not less choice, but more information - clear information to make informed decisions about what services are right for you and your family.

Just by watching the ads on TV or reading the brochures that come in the mail, you know that it can be downright bewildering trying to choose a long-distance carrier.

That's why just yesterday we ordered long-distance carriers to post their rates on the Internet. Now, millions of Americans on-line can easily find out about long-distance rates, and newspapers and consumer groups can make this information available to those not yet on-line.

We want to make shopping for a long distance company as easy as shopping at the grocery store. So you'll be able to compare rate plans, just like you compare the price of toothpaste. This is smart shopping for the Information Age.

This order is part of a much larger effort that I am undertaking to give Americans the basic information that they need to navigate their way through these confusing waters of new technologies. Because if you have looked at your phone bill lately, it's about as easy to understand as hieroglyphics.

In fact, a few months ago, my wife was going over our bills, and she called me over. "Honey, can you give me a hand with this phone bill. I just don't understand all these charges."

I walked over, ready to show off my hours of reading, countless briefings, and years of practicing communications law. And you know what? I didn't understand them either.

Now, if the Chairman of the FCC can't understand his phone bill, than we've got a problem.

And this has the potential for getting even worse. In the next few years, more of us will be buying advanced services from a huge array of companies.

That is why bills must be clear and easy to read. Nothing should be crammed onto them that you don't want or don't understand. You should be able to read your bill and know what you're paying for.

After receiving thousands of complaints about companies cramming all these strange and hard-to-understand choices on bills, we have taken action. Next month, the FCC will vote on new truth-in-billing rules.

We will require all bills to be clear and understandable. New charges will be highlighted so that consumers can immediately spot them and see if they are warranted.

All charges will have clear explanations about what they are, and who to contact if there is a problem.

And it will say clearly in plain English which charges, if not paid, will result in a termination of service.

This truth-in-billing initiative makes sense. You know what's in the medicine you take, the clothes you wear, or the food you eat.

Considering how much you spend on your phone bill and how important a service it is, don't you think you should know what you're paying for? I think so. And with these rules, we'll make it happen.

There's another way that the FCC looks out for the public, and that is making sure that all Americans actually have the chance to become consumers of these technologies.

That as we build the Information Superhighway, the on-ramps will not only go to the business districts, but to the barrios; not only to those with every advantage, but to those with disabilities; and not only to suburban homes, but to our rural heartland.

President Clinton and Vice President Gore understand this. They know that in our New Economy what you learn is what you earn.

Because of their vision and leadership, we now have the e-rate program. And I'm happy to report that this month marked the end of the first year of e-rate funding. And after only 12 months, we've given out $1.6 billion to over 80,000 schools. We have wired over one-half of all the classrooms in the nation.

Schools like Vine Street Elementary School in Los Angeles where I was earlier this week. I know this school well, for when I was growing up, my mother taught there. And I have to say, that in many ways, the school looks the same as it did back then, except for one thing.

Now, there are computers in the classrooms. And because of an e-rate grant, there are wires linking them to the Internet and connecting these children to the basic skills that they'll need to succeed in the New Economy.

All you have to do is go to schools like Vine Elementary and see how this technology excites these kids and ignites their curiosity to see what an important investment the e-rate is.

That's why I ask you to join me in making sure that the e-rate is able to complete its work and wire every school to the Internet by the next millennium.

But as we charge into the future, it is the FCC's job - and all our jobs - to make sure that the basic communications services of today are available to all Americans.

Believe it or not, at the end of the 20th century there are still people in this country who do not have basic phone service.

Some of these are poor people who can't make ends meet so their service is cut off. Realizing that a line to the hospital or the police is a matter of life or death, we began the Lifeline program so that basic service can continue even during the most difficult times.

And too many of those without basic phone service are Indians on reservations throughout the West. It's a disgrace that nationally 94 percent of Americans have telephones, but on Indian reservations, less than half do.

When I was visiting an Indian reservation in New Mexico last month, I heard stories about people who were sick, but couldn't call a doctor, or who had watched a loved-one die as they waited for someone to drive to a phone to call an ambulance.

This weekend, I'm flying to Arizona to assess the phone situation on Indian reservations there. And what I'll tell them, I'll tell you now: this can't be tolerated, and it won't be tolerated. It is the FCC's job to provide universal service, and provide it we will.

The final part of making sure that all Americans have access to the technologies of tomorrow is making sure that all Americans can actually use these technologies once they make it to their door.

We can't forget that 54 million Americans have some sort of disability. And it is estimated that there are as many as 15 million people with disabilities who are of working age, who want to work, but can't use the communications tools that are essential to almost any job.

If those who are hard of hearing, or who are blind, or have difficulty using their hands can't use the communications equipment upon which we all rely, we are denying a large part of our country the opportunity for a full life.

That is why we at the FCC are working with the disability community and with industry everyday to make sure that the new products and new services have accessibility built into them from the get-go. Special products don't have to be developed, just smart products.

Think about closed-captioning. There are countless Americans who can hear perfectly well, but use closed-captioning to learn English or to watch TV in bed while their spouse reads or sleeps. You know, sometimes I think that with this one innovation, we have single-handedly saved hundreds of marriages.

And looking to the future, I just read that AT&T, Motorola, and Lucent are working on a voice-based Internet. This will make it possible for us to access web information over the phone, and for those that are blind, it will enable them to surf the web like the rest of us.

Ensuring people with disabilities can use these technologies to live a fuller life; bringing life-saving phone service to families on the most remote Indian reservations; seeing a child's face light up as he or she goes on-line for the first time; and helping ordinary families make sense of all this incredible change - these are the things that keep me going as chairman of the FCC.

That is what I - and my dedicated staff - are fighting for everyday. That is why we need a robust FCC even in this age of competition.

I know that I can count on all of you to join me in this fight. For if there is ever an ally of consumers and a friend of opportunity, it is the CFA. If there is ever an organization that should be a partner in our work at the Federal Communications Commission, it is you.

Thank you for the opportunity for me to be with you today. And I look forward to our work together.