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Broadband bill likely to come before Senate

May 14, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Republican power brokers in the Senate have assured Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., that his controversial broadband legislation will be considered by the upper chamber.
That’s significant because the prevailing sentiment in Washington has been that the bill, designed to make the Baby Bell phone companies more competitive with cable broadband providers, will stall in the Senate, where opponent AT&T has influential political allies.
On May 9, Rep. Tauzin’s panel-the House Energy & Commerce Committee-approved the measure by a 32-23 vote after seven hours of contentious debate.
“I’ve talked to Trent Lott personally, and he understands that this bill has momentum and will have momentum going into the Senate, and that it’s an issue that deserves attention,” Rep. Tauzin said of the Senate majority leader from Mississippi. “We are beginning to get signals from all the major parties that essential compromises are out there.”
He said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., plans to review the measure before his panel.
“My information is that he is prepared to process the bill if we bring it to him,” the Louisiana lawmaker said.
Senate Commerce spokeswoman Pia Pialorsi wasn’t sure if Sen. McCain will actively support the measure but said he’ll take steps to ensure it’s fair and balanced.
The senators’ promises are far from endorsements-Mr. Lott is viewed as friendly to long-distance companies, which oppose the bill. Nevertheless, the pledges add momentum to a measure that is surviving in the House despite fierce opposition from legislators who consider it a Baby Bell giveaway.
The bill, co-authored by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., lifts restrictions on the Bells’ high-speed Internet access offerings so the phone giants can build Internet backbone nationwide and compete head-to-head against cable modem services.
The Bells provide broadband now but must offer open access to competing Internet players and hand off data traffic to other carriers to reach customers outside their phone service regions.
Critics such as AT&T say the bill is unfair because it lets the Bells into the long-distance data business before opening their local markets to competition.
Supporters last week added language designed to appease opponents, who did not appear impressed. Rep. Tauzin amended the bill to require the Bells to continue offering open access, but the restrictions would expire in three years and only pertain to data transmitted over copper wires, which is an older technology now being supplanted by faster alternatives.
The committee nearly passed an amendment mandating more extensive line-sharing requirements for the Bells, but under House rules, the
27-27 tie vote counted as a defeat.
The bill also was modified to require the Bells to offer high-speed Internet access in rural and underserved areas, but critics complained the requirements are paltry and will leave many rural citizens without service.
Rep. Tauzin hopes to bring his bill up for a vote on the House floor before the August recess. But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., has concerns about the legislation and is seeking authority to review it, a move Rep. Tauzin opposes. The Judiciary panel also plans to move its own broadband bill.
On a related note, Rep. Tauzin will ask the House Rules Committee for permission to add legislation crafted by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., to his broadband bill that increases the penalties Bell companies face for failing to comply with market-opening requirements in the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
The measure is not germane to the broadband bill, but Rep. Tauzin says it should be added to beef up enforcement of the Bells as they move full throttle into long-distance data. Mr. Upton will also hold a hearing May 17 on his enforcement plan.