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Bell bill hits bumps

Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) are still expected to win House approval of a bill that would deregulate the incumbent phone companies' high-speed data service. But its path to passage was looking anything but smooth last week.

Just last week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) asserted that his committee also should have jurisdiction over the bill, adding another set of scrutinizing eyes.

"The Judiciary Committee has exercised jurisdiction over unlawful monopolies and restraints of trade in the telecommunications industry since the 1950s," Sensenbrenner wrote. "That naturally flows from the fundamental nature of the problem: The owners of the local exchanges, now the regional Bell operating companies, exercise monopoly power over those exchanges. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 set up a careful balance to alleviate that monopoly power … that persists today. [The bill] seeks to radically rewrite—indeed eliminate—that balance."

The bill's supporters want to keep the bill out of the Judiciary Committee because they say that a stop there could derail or seriously delay the measure.

"It's another curve in the road that we'll have to negotiate, but the Energy and Commerce Committee is clearly driving this legislation, and we don't intend to give up the wheel without a fight," said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.

But the House Judiciary Committee isn't stopping at claiming jurisdiction over Tauzin-Dingell. Last week, two members of that committee—Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Chris Cannon (R-Utah)—introduced rival legislation that would directly oppose the goals of Tauzin-Dingell. Such a bill would likely be referred to the judiciary committee, again giving it a chance to write opposing legislation.

Meanwhile, the cable industry officially has decided to sit out this fight, sending a letter to the committee declaring its neutrality.

"NCTA would strongly oppose efforts to classify cable Internet services as telecommunications services or otherwise extend common carrier-like regulation, including mandatory access requirements, to cable Internet services and facilities," wrote NCTA President Robert Sachs. But even so, "NCTA remains concerned that a broad rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 would create regulatory uncertainty, having a negative impact on capital markets and discouraging competitive investment."

That concern was shared by Cox Communications CEO James Robbins last week. He told the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee that "Congress … should resist urgings to revisit the delicate balance achieved in the 1996 Act" because regulatory uncertainty would prevent new facilities-based competitive local exchange carriers, such as Cox's local phone offerings, from entering the market.

Top MSO and long-distance provider AT&T Corp. vigorously opposes the bill.