Washington -- Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) said the Baby Bells
would have a better chance of winning long-distance-data relief if Texas Gov. George Bush,
rather than Vice President Al Gore, were elected president.
Boucher is sponsoring a bill (H.R. 1686) that would allow
the four Bells to transport data traffic between local calling areas before complying with
rules that require them to open their markets as an entry precondition. Reps. Billy Tauzin
(R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) are sponsors of similar legislation (H.R. 2420).
"I think if Mr. Bush is elected, he would become an
advocate for this measure," Boucher said at a March 10 Legg Mason Wood Walker
investor conference here. "If Mr. Gore is elected, I think we'd have exactly the
opposite result. Let me also say that I support Al Gore, but not because of this
With wins March 7 (Super Tuesday) -- followed by primary
victories in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas last Tuesday
-- Gore and Bush wrapped up their party nominations.
More so than Republican Bush, Democrat Gore has a strong
track record in telecommunications policy, and he has traditionally opposed the
deregulation of monopolies until they face competition in the core business.
"[Gore] has historically been closer to the people who
would not like to see the Bell companies be given [long-distance freedom] in the course of
time," Boucher said. "If you take that issue in isolation, the likelihood is
that Bush would be more supportive."
The Bells need data deregulation, Boucher said, because
they need economic incentive to deploy high-speed facilities in rural and high-cost areas.
The incentive is not there today because the law and Federal Communications Commission
rules require them to pass off data traffic headed to another local calling area to one of
the long-distance carriers.
Boucher said his bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte
(R-Va.), would still require the Bells to meet the open-network rules with regard to voice
"I think passage of this measure does no violence to
the theory of the 1996 Telecommunications Act," he added. "What we were talking
about when we passed the '96 Act was voice-based long-distance service."
The Tauzin-Dingell bill is popular, with more than 150
co-sponsors. But it is unlikely to move out of the Commerce Committee because chairman
Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) opposes it.
The Boucher-Goodlatte bill, which had been referred to the
Judiciary Committee, could emerge from that panel soon, though, perhaps forcing
Bliley's hand at Commerce.
"We are only one or two votes away from having the
required majority necessary to report the bill from the House Judiciary Committee,"
Boucher said. "[Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Henry] Hyde [R-Ill.] has indicated
to us that he is willing to entertain the bill and provide a markup as soon as the
required number of votes for passage can be achieved."
The National Cable Television Association opposes both
bills, saying that Congress should not attempt to amend the 1996 law. NCTA president
Robert Sachs has said that the FCC has sufficient authority to deregulate the data
services of the Bells.
Boucher said he felt that there is a 50 percent chance a
version of his bill would become law this year. He added that his prediction could not be
more aggressive because he was unsure what the Senate might do or how the Clinton White
House might react.
Included in the Boucher-Goodlatte bill is a provision that
would require cable operators to provide access to competing Internet-service providers.
Once an advocate for the legislation, America Online Inc.
has pulled its support in the wake of its move to acquire Time Warner Inc., and it will
bank on industry negotiations to resolve open-access disputes.
After discussing the Time Warner merger with AOL chairman
and CEO Steve Case, Boucher said he was willing to give Case some time to strike deals.
"That's fine with me because it's going to
take us six or eight months to pass this bill in the best of circumstances anyway, so he
has the time he needs to conduct these conversations," Boucher said. "I have to
tell you that I remain somewhat skeptical that he's going to be successful."
Any agreement, Boucher said, should allow any requesting
ISP to connect at the cable headend, to enjoy nondiscriminatory prices, to provide
unlimited video streaming and to have a direct relationship with the customer.
"Time Warner, in its commitments to open access, has
honored these principles, and I find that commitment to be rock-solid," Boucher said.
"AT&T [Corp.'s] commitment, by contrast, leaves a lot to be desired on every
one of these tests."
Time Warner laid out its open-access policies in a
memorandum of understanding with AOL Feb. 29. AT&T articulated its approach in
December in a letter to FCC chairman William Kennard that MindSpring Enterprises Inc.
Both cable operators said their commitments would likely
not take effect until the expiration of exclusive contracts with their affiliated ISPs --
in 2001 for Time Warner and Road Runner and starting in mid-2002 for AT&T and