Security, Mergers, Legislation Top USTA Agenda

Regional Bells and other local exchange carriers gather in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week for the U.S. Telecom Association's annual convention.

Is it patriotic to give the FBI broader powers to intercept e-mail and wiretap telephone calls in the effort to catch terrorists? Or, are carriers truer to Americans values if they insist that the rights to liberty and privacy be protected?

Those are some suddenly hot topics as the regional Bells and other local exchange carriers gather in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week for the U.S. Telecom Associations annual convention.

Today, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen will speak on the current national security initiatives and the importance of the U.S. communications infrastructure.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich will talk to the USTA about the terrorist crisis on Tuesday.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has proposed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 that would expand the authority of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to monitor private communications and access personal information.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center opposes a provision that would expand the FBIs rights to use its special Carnivore computers to filter the traffic on a suspected terrorists Internet service provider -- including the memos, ideas and information belonging to hundreds of thousands of innocent Internet users.

"There is no oversight on whether only the information authorized to be intercepted is being collected," said David Sobel, spokesman for EPIC, a nonprofit group that examines the privacy and civil liberties implications of the Internet.

If the act becomes law, the FBI could use Carnivore without seeking permission from the federal courts. The FBI already has broad surveillance powers, and no request for surveillance of a terrorist has ever been denied by the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that reviews those requests, Sobel said. "We havent seen anything growing out of the events of September 11 that changes our position on the adequacy of the current law."

The USTA conference also includes sessions on mergers and acquisitions. Many analysts are expecting the regional Bells one by one to acquire or merge with the huge long-distance carriers such as AT&T, Sprint and WorldCom. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, more business customers are looking for carriers that can provide redundant infrastructures and a complete package of local, long-distance, wireless and high-speed data services to help them stay online during catastrophic events.

Also, Paceon will lead a session on Passive Optical Networks as a way to more quickly connect businesses and homes to high-speed networks. Paceon uses a passive optical splitter at the curb or in the neighborhood to bring voice, data and video services to the home. Its partnership with SBC Communications Project Pronto has accelerated the time line for bringing DSL to customers.