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Broadband bill still alive

Legislation that would allow the regional phone companies to offer high-speed data services across long distances appears likely to pass in the House.

The bill is the center of a raucous fight in the telcom community, with incumbent local phone companies on one side and long-distance carriers and competitive local exchange carriers on the other. The cable industry has, for the most part, chosen to stay out of the melee, arguing that if cable wants to stay unregulated, it would not be wise to push for regulating its competitors. Still, No. 2 MSO AT&T made clear last week that it vigorously opposes the bill.

The legislation "would subvert the incentive-based framework of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, undermine competition in the provision of telecommunications services and slow the deployment of advanced services," said AT&T General Counsel James Cicconi at a hearing.

Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) spent much of last week on the bill, introducing it Tuesday, holding a marathon hearing Wednesday and voting it out of subcommittee after a contentious session on Thursday. The bill stays center stage next week when House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Tauzin holds a vote in the full committee and then moves the bill onto the floor.

But industry lobbyists expect that even if the bill passes the House, it won't in the Senate. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) plans to present a similar bill this year, but four Senators—Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii)—are active opponents.

Getting the bill through the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee wasn't nearly as easy as expected, given that the same legislation gathered 224 co-sponsors—a majority of the House—in the last session of Congress. This time, however, Republican committee members Christopher Cox (Calif.), Steve Largent (Okla.), Chip Pickering (Miss.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.) actively opposed the bill.

According to opponents, deregulating the regional Bell operating companies' (RBOCs) high-speed data services also will deregulate their voice services because, as all information becomes digital, one bit becomes indistinguishable from another. The result, they say, will be that the Bells will enter the long-distance markets without ever having to open their local markets to competition, as the 1996 Telecommunications Act required.

Tauzin and Dingell concede that point but say the enforcement clause in the 1996 Act will keep the phone companies in check. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, intends to add such a clause to this bill. Tauzin and Dingell also argue that cable offers high-speed data services on a completely unregulated basis.