Bell tolling for Bell bill

Passage appears unlikely for Tauzin dereg effort

Chances appear slim for passage of a bill that would allow incumbent phone companies to offer long-distance, high-speed data services unencumbered by regulation.

The House Judiciary Committee last week began two weeks of oversight on the bill. It has until June 18 to complete work on the measure, introduced by House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and that committee's top Democrat, John Dingell (Mich.).

The bill is much more contentious now that it has actually been making progress in the House. Last year, former House Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley (R-Va.) strongly opposed the measure and kept the bill bottled up.

This year, Tauzin and Dingell struggled to get the approval of the bill's sponsoring committee; it finally passed 32-23 after a heated debate.

Now that the House Judiciary Committee has its hands on the bill, it could potentially emerge from a vote planned for next Wednesday in a form unacceptable to its own sponsors.

The House Judiciary Committee is limited in its review to provisions that address whether incumbent phone companies are behaving monopolistically. According to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the Justice Department can deny the Baby Bells' applications to enter the long-distance market if those companies are acting anticompetitively. Tauzin-Dingell would deregulate that process for data, which would cut the Justice Department out of the loop, something many members of the Judiciary Committee oppose.

That committee's strongest opponents to Tauzin-Dingell are Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Chris Cannon (R-Utah), who are pushing two countermeasures.

Opponents of Tauzin-Dingell say passing the bill will eliminate any incentive the Bells have to open their local phone markets to competitors.

The bill's strongest proponents in the Judiciary Committee are Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who in the last session of Congress introduced legislation that would have deregulated the phone companies' data services but aren't reintroducing those bills this year.

The bill's supporters say, if the government forces phone companies to share their expensive high-speed networks with competitors, the Bells won't spend to build the networks, delaying rollout of high-speed services to underserved areas.