Legislation designed to make phone companies more competitive with cable in the broadband arena passed a House panel last week. But the vote was contentious, and several lawmakers insisted the measure would hurt competition in the name of helping it.
The House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet approved the bill 19 to 14 on Thursday, and the House Commerce Committee plans to vote on it this week or next.
But the bill, offered by House Commerce Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., is drawing fire from some Republicans and Democrats because it lets the Baby Bell phone companies build out an Internet backbone nationwide without opening their local markets to competition.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act requires the Bells to satisfy a checklist of requirements to offer long-distance voice service, and critics say the checklist should be also satisfied for long-distance data, i.e. broadband.
The Bells provide high-speed Internet access now, but under regulatory restrictions that are not imposed on cable modem service providers.
At a hearing April 25 before Rep. Tauzin’s panel and at the panel’s consideration of the bill the next day several Republicans normally aligned with Rep. Tauzin expressed opposition to his measure.
Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif.; Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla.; Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.; and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., were among the Republicans raising concerns.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., was the most critical Democrat. “It’s an incumbency protection program, plain and simple. It shields the Bell companies while emptying a six-shooter into the heart of new economy companies,” he said.
These members complained there’s only been one hearing on the bill this year and they weren’t given sufficient time to prepare for the vote.
Rep. Tauzin said there was plenty of time to get ready, given that the subcommittee has held five hearings on the legislation over two years. He said the measure boosts competition without resorting to onerous regulation.