Bell bill clears hurdle

Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) last week managed to get his broadband-deregulation bill through the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, but it wasn't easy.

After a contentious subcommittee vote two weeks ago, observers had predicted that committee Chairman Tauzin (R-La.) and his chief co-sponsor, top Democrat John Dingell (Mich.), would have an easier time in full committee.

But, although Tauzin kept a tight rein on members during the 81/2-hour discussion last week, at one point, the committee was dangerously close to adding an amendment that Tauzin says would have "gutted" the bill.

The Tauzin-Dingell bill (H.R. 1542) is essentially a fight between two well-financed, well-established enemies: the incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs, also known as the Baby Bells and the RBOCs) and the long-distance companies, including AT&T, Sprint and Worldcom.

From there, the fight divides along less well-established lines, with some competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) joining up with AT&T to oppose the bill. CLECs that own their facilities are siding more with the Baby Bells and other incumbent phone companies because they don't need access to the Bells' facilities and networks to stay in business.

Meanwhile, the cable industry is staying out of the fight, preferring to remain quiet and deregulated rather than taking the inconsistent position of asking Congress to regulate its competitors. But cable lobbyists have been heavily in attendance at every turn and are remaining vigilant just in case a lawmaker succeeds in turning the bill into an opportunity to regulate the industry.

Ultimately, the committee passed the legislation by a close, 32-23 vote, by no means a mandate. But the hold-your-breath moment came after a 11/2-hour debate on whether the ILECs should be forced to open up the last miles of their advanced-service networks. Tauzin prevailed in keeping out the "bill-killer" amendment, but only after a surprising tie vote of 27-27—by House rules, the same as a loss.

Now the bill continues to the House Rules Committee, where Tauzin plans to attach a separate bill, crafted by House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), that would increase from $1.2 million to $10 million the fines the FCC can levy on ILECs for violating competition provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The fines would double to $20 million, however, for repeat offenders. The bill also would increase the time from one to two years that the FCC has to investigate reported violations.

Upton and the 14 other lawmakers who co-sponsored the measure (H.R. 1765) got backing last week from FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) discussed one cable-related amendment that he decided to put off. He is concerned that interactive-TV providers keep their networks open for all content providers to use. Tauzin agreed that the committee would soon hold a hearing on the issue.

Finally, the committee approved a measure sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Tom Sawyer (D-Ohio) that says that, in return for deregulation of their high-speed services, the ILECs must offer high-speed Internet services to the entire country within five years.

There are still battles to be fought before the bill can go to the House floor for a vote. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) could allow the House Judiciary Committee to get a crack at the bill first, as Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has requested. During a break in the hearing, which was stalled for about 45 minutes by a fire on the third floor of the House office building that houses the committee room, Tauzin pointed out, though, that, in two instances, Hastert has assigned similar bills uniquely to the Commerce Committee.

Still, the House Judiciary Committee plans a hearing on May 22 that will examine two opposing bills introduced two weeks ago by committee members Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Chris Cannon (R-Utah).

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.