Washington-Proponents of a bill that would deregulate the Baby Bells' data services insisted that recent moves by the Federal Communications Commission have not hurt the bill's chances on Capitol Hill.
Two Bells in two states are now allowed to provide long-distance services, invading a market dominated by AT & T Corp., MCI WorldCom Inc. and Sprint Corp. But the Bells are pressing Congress to allow for faster entry to provide the incentives to bring broadband to rural markets and to close the so-called digital divide.
With a majority of the House backing them, Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) want to pass a bill that would substantially revise the Telecommunications Act of 1996 with respect to long-distance-entry rules that apply to the four Baby Bells serving the lower 48 states.
For Tauzin, the pace of Bell entry has been too slow, causing him to believe Congress has to change the law to allow more players to compete.
"It's only two companies in two states," Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said. "Until there is full and open competition nationwide, we are going to continue to pursue our bill."
Under current law, the Bells may not offer long-distance services-voice or data-until they have opened their local phone facilities to competitors under standards administered by the Department of Justice and the FCC.
Tauzin and Dingell-in a bill (H.R. 2420) introduced more than one year ago, which now claims 218 House co-sponsors-want to allow the Bells to transmit data traffic over long-distance lines before they have opened their voice networks to new entrants.
When the bill was introduced, none of the Bells had gained long-distance approval. But in December, Bell Atlantic Corp. won regulatory approval in New York. And two weeks ago, SBC Communications Inc. got the green light to begin long-distance service in Texas.
Defenders of current law, including the cable industry, claimed that the Tauzin-Dingell bill is unnecessary because the 1996 law contained the road map for the creation of a fully competitive market that is within the Bells' power to make happen.
The bill would still require the Bells to open their voice networks before they could offer long-distance voice services. But critics such as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said that safeguard would be meaningless if projections are correct that phone-network utilization is going to be predominantly data in a few years.
Johnson said the FCC has been too strict in overseeing Bell entry. Although the agency has approved two applications, it has rejected others submitted by BellSouth Corp. and Ameritech Corp. (now part of SBC).
"If it was that easy for the companies to fulfill the FCC's checklist, we would have had competition long before now," he added.
The United States Telecom Association-the local phone lobby dominated by the Baby Bells-quickly threw its support behind the Tauzin-Dingell bill and helped to line up the diverse coalition in the House that supports it. About 100 House Democrats have endorsed the bill.
USTA spokeswoman Michelle Tober said FCC approvals of Bell Atlantic and SBC were steps in the right direction but too late in coming.
"The companies still have to each file individual applications for individual states, so I don't think [the FCC's] process is going to result in the Bells getting into long distance very quickly," she said. "I don't think the law intended four years later for two Bell companies to be just in long distance in two states."
As this Congress comes to a close in the fall, the USTA won't have its top lobbyist pushing for passage of the Tauzin-Dingell bill.
Tober said last week that USTA president Roy Neel is planning to take a leave of absence to work for Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign soon after Labor Day.
Neel was a top Gore aide during Gore's years in the Senate. He became Gore's chief of staff in the White House before shifting over to become President Clinton's deputy chief of staff. Neel left the White House in late 1993 to take the vacant USTA position.
Johnson said Neel's decision wasn't a setback. "Roy's been a very forceful advocate of our legislation, but the fact of the matter is that the merits of the bill have sold it up to this point," he added.
Due to the opposition of House Commerce Committee chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.), Tauzin has not been able to conduct a hearing on his bill in the Telecommunications Subcommittee, which he heads.
But Johnson said House leaders might force Bliley to relent in order to appease the bill's majority coalition. "We are hopeful that now that we have 218 co-sponsors, the House leadership will allow us to at least hold a hearing on our bill," he added.