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Telecom panel change may help rural causes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A leadership change on a U.S. House of Representatives panel overseeing telecommunications issues will likely bring a bigger push on expanding technology to rural communities.

Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat whose district includes rural mountainous areas of Virginia, said on Thursday he was set to become chairman of the Communications, Technology and the Internet Subcommittee.

The move came about after Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat whose district includes Boston, decided to give up the telecom post to head an environmental subcommittee of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Boucher’s perspective representing economically depressed, rural areas is one of the major areas of contrast between Markey and Boucher, observers said.

“My guess is that is the biggest difference,” said Sharron Ringley Potter, a lobbyist who was deputy chief of staff for Boucher, and now advises technology companies, including Amazon.com Inc. “Economic development has long been the focus of his congressional career.”

Boucher, 62, has been in Congress since 1982. He has been active in Internet-related legislation and was elected to his 14th term in the House in November.

Satellite television companies could also benefit from Boucher’s appointment, as many rural areas rely on satellite to receive more channels. DirecTV Group and DISH Network Corp are the two biggest satellite TV companies.

The major telecom issue facing regulators and lawmakers is the mandatory switch by television broadcasters to digital signals, set to occur on February 17.

Many of the 20 million Americans with older televisions who need to take action to avoid their signals going black are in rural areas.

The government said earlier this week it had exhausted its budget for the $40 coupons for consumers to subsidize the cost of converter boxes needed by these viewers to receive digital television.

BROADBAND, TELECOM, MEDIA IMPACTS

Boucher has tended to favor the companies that were spun off after the break-up of the AT&T monopoly on competition policy issues, the investment consultants Medley Global Advisors wrote in a research note on Thursday.

These companies, which include AT&T Inc and Qwest Communications, are often pitted against so-called competitive local exchange carriers, which includes Sprint Nextel Corp and other much smaller companies.

That support is tempered by his backing for municipal broadband networks, opposed by the bell spin-offs, said Jessica Zufolo, an analyst at Medley.

Boucher departs from some Democratic colleagues in Congress in that he was not a vocal opponent of efforts by Republican regulators to promote greater consolidation of media interests.

“As a result we do not expect media consolidation issues to arise in the subcommittee under his leadership,” the note said.

Expanding and building networks for high-speed Internet to underserved, mostly rural areas, is also a subject of hot debate as lawmakers hash out an $800 billion stimulus proposal to boost the ailing economy.

“I think the most immediate impact may be the effect the stimulus and the need to bridge the digital divide has on smaller operators serving underserved communities and their ability to roll out broadband,” said a source close to smaller operators in the cable industry.

Another tech industry source said Boucher is “supportive of business generally and also understands the challenges that businesses will face in the telecom area.”

“I think the perception is that he is technology-savvy and has looked at it from the perspective of someone who appreciates the benefits that can be achieved with technology,” that source said.

Additional reporting by Yinka Adegoke in New York, editing by Matthew Lewis and Andre Grenon

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