In his first hearing as the new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) made sure that incumbent phone companies understood his position on deregulating their long-distance data services.
"They're doing a Broadway act in Washington," Hollings said. "It's as much nonsense as I've ever heard of."
Incumbent regional phone companies-the so-called Baby Bells-are pushing Congress to let them offer high-speed data services across long distances without first having to open their local markets to competition. Legislation sponsored by Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) is moving through the House, although not without substantial opposition, particularly from members of the Judiciary Committee.
But Hollings made it clear that the bill has no chance of passing the Senate. "There's all this weeping and wailing on the House side," Hollings said. "All we've got to do is enforce the law."
Hollings was supportive of a plan, first proposed by FCC Chairman Michael Powell during a House hearing, that the Bells should face much larger fines for violating provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Act and refusing to open their markets and their networks to competitors. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) supported that view, and opposed Tauzin-Dingell. "In my judgement, Tauzin-Dingell is going to get way slowed down when it reaches the Senate. I don't think the Senate has the will to pass Tauzin-Dingell."
The Senate is very concerned about bringing broadband services to rural markets, and much of the panel focused on that discussion. "If you want national broadband access, there are state and federal policies you can put in place to accomplish that," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who led off Tuesday's testimony. Markey referred to universal service requirements and federal subsidy and loan programs. Markey pushed the Senate not to reopen the 96 Act, as Tauzin-Dingell would do. "We put the law on the books," Markey said. "The best action is to stay the course."
- Paige Albiniak