Washington-Despite an upsurge in House support for deregulation of the local phone industry, Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) remains opposed to legislation that would ease Baby Bell entry into the long-distance market exclusively for data services.
At a House hearing on broadband deployment last Thursday, Bliley said he would give no ground to proposals calling for a major revision to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, one of Bliley's signal achievements as chairman of the House Commerce Committee.
"Contrary to what some are saying, there is nothing under current law that precludes local telephone companies from participating in the residential broadband market," Bliley said. "Yet some still think consumers and industry need the help of Congress at this point. This puzzles me because I can't seem to see the 'problem' for which others have a 'solution'."
The cable industry supports Bliley's position, arguing that the four-year-old law is working well, as evidenced by cable companies and other competitors investing billions of dollars to provide consumers and business with broadband Internet access.
Bliley is standing firm against H.R. 2420, a bill sponsored by Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.). The bill would allow the Bells to transport data across local calling areas before they need to open their voice networks to competition.
The 1996 law requires the Bells-which control about 95 percent of the local phone business-to open their voice networks to competitors before entering the lucrative long-distance market for either data or voice services.
But this structure is coming under heavy pressure, as more than 200 House members have endorsed the Tauzin-Dingell bill. It takes 218 signatures on a discharge petition to remove the bill from Bliley's powerful grasp.
"Our goal is to reach 218 co-sponsors-a majority of the House-which we hope puts pressure on the House leadership to at least hold a hearing on our bill," Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said. "Clearly, momentum is building to promote competition for broadband services."
Tauzin, chairman of the House Telecommunication Subcommittee, said at the hearing that his bill was necessary because the restrictions on the Bells are denying rural Americans access to high-speed Internet services.
Dingell followed Tauzin by saying that the 1996 Act was never intended to hold back the Bells from providing advanced telecommunications services.
Tauzin and Dingell said the law, as enforced by the Federal Communications Commission, allows cable companies to compete freely, while the Bells have to jump through regulatory hoops.
"The good old FCC seems incapable of reading the legislation and incapable of moving forward to competition," Dingell said, adding that he had no idea how to push the commission in the right direction.
"Is this to be done by impeaching the FCC or burning the building down, or just what? With the resistance of the FCC, it would appear that something of that kind may ultimately have to be considered," he said.
With Bliley a roadblock and the legislative calendar shortened by the election year, the Tauzin-Dingell bill might not advance very far this year. But next year could be a different story.
Tauzin is in the running to become Bliley's replacement if Republicans hold the House, and Dingell is poised to take over if the Democrats can erode the GOP's five-seat majority hold.
But Bliley isn't alone in defending current law. "This is working. This is a success story," said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). "The good news is that the local telcos are deploying DSL [digital subscriber line]."
Reps. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) said Congress should either do nothing or move very cautiously. "I think we need to be more patient," Eshoo said. "I think consumers seem to be getting lower prices and more choice."
In another development, Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) indicated that they would be willing to drop cable open-access provisions from their bill (H.R. 1686) in light of commitments by AT & T Corp., America Online Inc. and Time Warner Inc. to provide consumers with choices among Internet-service providers.
Goodlatte said the cable industry deserved some "additional breathing room" to make open access a reality. But going forward, he added, Congress should adopt a policy of "trust, but verify."