June 29, 2006 4:04 PM PDT

Broadband providers decry Net-wiretapping rules

WASHINGTON--Complying with a recent expansion of federal wiretapping requirements to broadband networks could be challenging for smaller providers, especially wireless carriers, industry representatives said Thursday.

Discussion about how to comply with the May 17, 2007 deadline by which most broadband and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) providers must re-engineer their networks took center stage during a panel session at a conference here hosted by the Wireless Communications Association International (WCA).

The looming deadline "almost has a ring (to it), like Y2K did," said Patrick Leary, an assistant vice president at Alvarion, which supplies wireless broadband products to hundreds of small carriers in the United States. "But this one being backed by the government makes it even scarier."

At the urging of the Bush administration, the Federal Communications Commission last September expanded a federal wiretapping law called the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, or CALEA, saying it applies not only to telecommunications services but also to most public broadband networks. Internet phone services such as Vonage and SkypeOut that are capable of connecting to the public telephone network are also covered.

"I think this was a bit of a surprise for people," said Sudeep Gupta, marketing strategy director for Alcatel's broadband wireless access group. With less than a year left on the compliance clock, he added, "there's a lot of concern about what's going on."

Part of the challenge for smaller broadband companies is that they don't know for sure whether the burden applies in the same way to them as to firms with more resources. The FCC has said it still plans to issue more specific regulations for smaller companies, schools and libraries, implying that they may be eligible for reprieves, but has remained mute about when that will happen.

A federal appeals court earlier this month upheld the FCC's sweeping mandate after a coalition of universities, librarians and technology companies mounted a court challenge against the regulators' authority to take such action. The plaintiffs had said the FCC exceeded the authority granted it by Congress.

Bob Primosch, counsel for the WCA, urged providers to "get started now to get this worked out. The (Federal Communications) Commission is not going to waive this rule for anybody, I can tell you that."

Further complicating that feat are the high costs involved. When CALEA took effect in 1994, the government set aside $500 million to reimburse telecommunications companies for the cost of upgrading their networks. But the FCC decided in May that it would offer no such help for VoIP and broadband providers.

It's unclear precisely how much broadband operators would have to spend to meet the government's demands, but Leary said he'd heard estimates from industry insiders that smaller carriers could face expenses five times greater than their larger counterparts would. That would amount, he said, to an estimated 5 cents extra per subscriber per month, up from the 1 cent projected for larger companies' subscribers.

Smaller broadband providers may also have to resign themselves to the possibility that even after they sink money into reworking their networks, law enforcement may not always take advantage of the ready access.

That's because law enforcement agencies are responsible for covering whatever costs it takes to carry out a particular intercept. As opposed to "a traditional wiretap in the old detective movie," which can cost as little as $250, the more extensive, real-time recording and formatting demands involved in intercepting communications under CALEA could cost several thousand dollars, a daunting fee for some officials, Primosch said.

Ron Haraseth of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials acknowledged that meeting CALEA's demands may not be easy for everyone, "but the bottom line is that's the cost of doing business these days," he said. "I don't know that we can make exemptions."

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