In Late-Night Debate, House Considers Telecommunications Reform
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House delayed until Friday morning consideration of a bill that would open the telecommunications system to unprecedented competition and dramatically change the way Americans get information and communicate with one another.
The decision came at 1:20 a.m. Friday and responds to mostly Democratic concerns that controversial amendments dealing with media concentration, TV violence and the role of the Justice Department in determining Bell company entry into long-distance telephone service, would be debated and voted on in the wee hours of the morning.
Under the agreement, the House will resume debate at 8 a.m. and move to a final vote by the afternoon.
``They are committed to finishing the bill,″ said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., one of the members demanding that the bill be debated when the public is tuned in.
The bill would free cable-TV and local and long-distance telephone companies to get into each other’s businesses, offering Americans greater choice and potentially lower prices. Opponents say the bill would benefit a few big companies and lead to increases in cable and telephone rates.
``This bill has been sold to the highest bidder in every telecommunications industry,″ Vice President Al Gore said Thursday, calling the measure ``abhorrent to the public interest.″
Debate on the most sweeping rewrite of telecommunications laws in 61 years got under way at 12:44 a.m. Thursday and continued for almost two hours, despite objections from Democrats.
``We should take up this bill in the light of day,″ complained Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.
Lawmakers were expected to resume consideration of the bill late Thursday night, after dealing with other legislation. A final vote was expected Friday.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., told reporters Thursday that the timing was unreasonable.
``It is ridiculous to have members here at 1:30 and 2 o’clock in the morning and all night tonight trying to deal with legislation that deserves a fair and more reasonable hearing,″ said Gephardt. ``You don’t need to try to jam all this legislation through in such a short period of time.″
The Senate passed a similar bill in June. But the House bill, as currently written, goes much further in deregulating cable rates and removing ownership restrictions on media companies _ so much so that President Clinton on Monday threatened to veto it.
Supporters of the bill, including the Bell companies, cable companies and TV networks, say it would benefit consumers and U.S. business.
The legislation, they say, would boost investment in the $700 billion American telecommunications industries, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, spur innovative communications systems and eventually lower rates for cable, telephone and other services.
Opponents, including consumer groups and long-distance companies such as AT&T, MCI and Sprint, say the bill benefits business at the expense of consumers. It will take years for true competition to evolve, if it ever does, they say.
Opponents assert that because of insufficient safeguards, cable and telephone rates will go up, Bell companies will use their local phone monopolies to block competitors and a few big companies will dominate news, entertainment and communications.
Markey planned to offer amendments tempering Republican-written provisions that would lift restrictions on cable rates and media ownership.
Markey’s plan would remove price constraints only for cable companies whose rate increases don’t exceed changes in the consumer price index.
The existing bill would deregulate most rates for small cable systems upon enactment and then lift price rules for all other systems within 15 months.
Under another Markey amendment, no one company would be allowed to own TV stations reaching more than 35 percent of all U.S. viewers. As currently written, the bill expands the existing 25 percent national audience cap to 35 percent and then to 50 percent one year later.
The Big Three networks and Fox like the ownership provision in the bill, but network affiliates say it will hurt their ability to get compensation from the networks and weaken their control over local programming. Independent stations fear expanding the networks’ power could put them out of business.
Markey’s plan also would retain a federal restriction barring a company from owning both a TV station and cable system in the same market. The House bill eliminates that restriction.
The bill also eliminates restrictions on local media cross ownership. The bill would scrap provisions barring a company from owning the local newspaper and TV station, a newspaper and radio station, or a newspaper and cable system. The bill also scraps provisions barring a company from owning more than one TV station locally, a TV and radio station, and multiple radio stations.
The bill’s primary author, Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., plans to offer amendments making it even easier for local phone companies to get into the long-distance business. It’s because of these changes that the long-distance companies are fighting the bill, which they once favored.
``It’s not the right way to legislate,″ said Rep. John Bryant, D-Texas. He complained that Bliley’s amendments were crafted in private and unfairly substitute provisions agreed on by the Commerce Committee in public.
Reps. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., will offer an amendment designed to shield children from indecent, obscene and other offensive materials over computer networks.
Their amendment would urge industry to promote technologies that would block offensive communications. The provision, supported by computer user groups, service providers and civil liberties organizations, is nowhere near as restrictive as the Senate bill’s language.
With support from parent groups, Markey also plans to offer an amendment, identical to a White House-supported provision in the Senate bill, that would require TV makers to install a computer chip that can recognize programs electronically rated for violence, sex and other content.
The TV networks oppose the plan and are pushing a measure that would urge the industry to help fund blocking technologies.
Another administration-supported amendment would give the Justice Department a bigger role in determining when a Bell company would be allowed entry into the long-distance business.