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Congress Contemplates Convergence

As it prepares its revamp of communications regulatory policy, the Senate Commerce Committee heard from various angles on the impact of technological convergence on competition during a hearing on the subject, the last hearing on communications issues before the committee marks up a bill updating the 1996 Telecommunications Act...maybe.

Even so, Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) ticked off a number of recent proposed mergers including AT&T BellSouth, and Comcast/Time Warner/Adelphia and said he would try to hold a hearing on all those before the markup, particularly their effect on access to businesses services, a market dominated by the Bells.

Co-Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said he would like to see a separate hearing just on BellSouth/AT&T, "given the enormous impact of this merger."

Despite his reservations about some of the fruits of convergence, Inouye said it had also produced  " a new set of options for consumers," that, "in many respects was what we had envisioned when we drafted the 1996 Telecommunications Act," which was meant to spur cable into telephone, phone into cable and both into data.

But Stevens said that despite the proliferation of alternate platforms, cable and phone companies continue to dominate broadband, representing over 98% of the market and "in too many parts of the country, Americans still lack a real choice in competitive broadband alternatives."

Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) made it clear where he was headed with Thursday's hearing: "It is our hope that as we level the playing field we will seek the most deregulatory course possible consistent with the public interest."

Among the issues that were raised by witnesses included discrimination in Internet service, spectrum set-asides for unlicensed wireless devices, phone interconnection for cable voice services, and video franchising.