Like it or not, licensing is an issue

I have been in the telecommunications industry for 20 years and have been a self-employed telecommunications systems contractor for 14 years. During the past four years, I have also been involved in co-authoring telecommunications licensing legislation in the state of Rhode Island, and have been a pro-bono lobbyist for this legislation. Having worked in support of a specific type of telecommunications legislation, I was gratified to see it written into the Rhode Island General Laws in July 1994.

Jeffery S. Deckman

Synet Inc.

I have been in the telecommunications industry for 20 years and have been a self-employed telecommunications systems contractor for 14 years. During the past four years, I have also been involved in co-authoring telecommunications licensing legislation in the state of Rhode Island, and have been a pro-bono lobbyist for this legislation. Having worked in support of a specific type of telecommunications legislation, I was gratified to see it written into the Rhode Island General Laws in July 1994.

The license we created in Rhode Island is limited to that segment of the telecommunications industry that deals with the design, installation, testing and certification of telecommunications wiring and transmission networks and systems, and their components. This is the only form of licensing I have seen a need for, and it is the only one I support.

I am neither an attorney nor an elected official, and I have no intention of becoming either. Furthermore, the last thing I am in favor of is bureaucrats and politicians getting involved in an industry about which they know nothing and trying to control it. Nor am I in favor of bigger government, additional regulations, more fees or outsider intervention in an industry that we have been successfully developing--without any help from bureaucrats and politicians.

However, I am strongly in favor of licensing legislation that members of the telecommunications industry have crafted and supported in the state of Rhode Island. The reasons for what may appear to be my paradoxical position on this issue are strictly based upon political reality and the political dynamics I have seen at work during the past five years.

Our industry is a very attractive one, because it is large, multifaceted and rapidly growing. People with many talents--software gurus to hardware technicians to construction workers who can install cable--can find fulfilling employment in telecommunications. The industry is only in its adolescence, which means it should provide continued long-term growth.

Because we are such an attractive industry, many people are interested in getting a piece of the telecommunications pie. Some of these people join the industry and work within it to better themselves, their companies and the industry as a whole. Others simply want access to potential profits and have no affinity for the industry-- high-technology carpetbaggers.

There are several ways to gain access to any industry: Work up through the ranks, buy into it and legislate your way into it. The third way is rarely, if ever, foreseen by those already in the industry before it is too late. It also takes less time and money than the first two methods. Such a legislative victory by a carpetbagger is typically designed to lock the victor in and keep perceived opponents out. This creates losers when there is no need for them. There is room for all in an industry such as ours, provided all who come into it know what they are doing.

How a takeover works

In Rhode Island special-interest groups outside the telecommunications industry deftly utilized legislative bodies to gain access to the industry while pushing out those who were already there. The reason these groups were able to accomplish this is they already had a political identity. In other words, they had already formed a recognizable political body.

For instance, professional engineers are licensed; this means they are politically and officially recognized. State boards populated by PEs test for competency, license those who are competent and monitor those licensed to ensure compliance with standards. The main reason for the existence of these boards is to provide consumer protection..

There are many other politically recognizable groups, including doctors, lawyers, electricians and plumbers. All are licensed and have monitoring boards to ensure consumer protection

As long as our industry does not police itself by establishing monitoring boards to help ensure the competence of its workers, we will not be recognized as having a separate identity. If we do not pro-actively establish our own identity, we run the risk of having someone else establish it for us, and in the process swallow us into a group that may be peripheral to our interests without our having a chance to be heard.

What happened in Rhode Island

This is what happened to us in Rhode Island in 1989: We were suddenly swallowed up by a group of licensed electricians that had an identity while we had none. Because we had no identity and did not maintain a lobbying presence at the State House, no one in government knew there might be opposition to the group that was attempting the takeover. Because we as an industry were silent, the perception was that we were very small. Because we were assumed to be a small and, therefore, politically unestablished industry, we were perceived to be unsophisticated.

This set the stage for those who were established (and sophisticated) in a related field-- electrical wiring--to argue for the takeover to promote the telecommunications industry and protect its customers.

It then took us four years of aggravation, frustration, fear, stress and fund-raisers to establish our identity with the legislators at the State House. This was the first step.

Today, we have fought our way out of the whale. We have successfully legislated ourselves into existence in the state of Rhode Island. Through our continued efforts, we have established a political identity, and as a result we have helped to pass legislation to license our industry. The licensing legislation has necessitated the creation of the Rhode Island Board of Examination and Licensing of Telecommunication Systems Contractors, Technicians and Installers. This board operates under the Rhode Island Department of Labor and comprises seven individuals, five of whom must have been in the telecommunications industry for a minimum number of consecutive years prior to appointment.

As the vice chairman of the board, I am pleased to announce that for the first time in the state`s history, a mechanism is in place that end users can contact in the case of a problem installation. To date, we have issued more than 2500 licenses. We have found that the end-user community and installation contractors have supported this development. Contractors are just as interested as end users in keeping the industry clean.

It`s about time

A comment I have heard time after time--from end users and contractors--is that it is about time something like this was done. The general feeling of those to whom I have spoken is they approve of having a board in place that represents the industry. They hope this board will help rid us of hackers who give the rest of us a bad name.

More important, though, is that now the Rhode Island telecommunications industry not only has an identity and a voice but it also has pulled its chair up to the political table, can participate in the statewide political dialogue and can work to ensure the industry is treated fairly. Nothing more is needed, but certainly nothing less is acceptable.

Through this process I have learned it is still possible to make government work constructively. However, you must stay involved throughout the process and see it to its end. Not to do so puts your entire plan of action at risk. Although I am not a fan of government intervention, I am a fan of protecting myself.

Jeffrey S. Deckman is president and founder of Synet Inc., a telecommunications media integration company in Coventry, RI. He is also vice chairman of the newly formed Rhode Island Board of Examination and Licensing of Telecommunication Systems, Contractors, Technicians and Installers. For more information on the Rhode Island legislation and its impact on the telecommunications industry, contact Deckman at (401) 823-9545.

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