House OKs cable TV restrictions Bill would let FCC set fees for basic service

September 11, 1990|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The House voted yesterday to reimpose some regulation on cable television, giving the federal government power to review prices if local governments complain.

The unanimous voice vote came amid broad criticism of the industry, which many have accused of functioning as an unfettered monopoly since it was deregulated in 1984 by the Reagan administration.

The House bill would give the Federal Communications Commission power to set rates for a "basic tier" of service, meaning traditional over-the-air stations, public television and government channels.

It also would grant the government power to review rates for all other programming, such as movie channels and CNN, if local authorities thought rates in their area were "unreasonable or abusive."

Agreement on the bill's provisions was considered an unexpected accomplishment for a measure given little chance of passage earlier in the year.

Left unresolved, however, was perhaps the most controversial question in cable TV's future -- whether telephone companies should be allowed to offer cable services.

Within hours after its passage, the White House threatened to veto the legislation, which in similar form is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.

"From everything I know, this veto threat is not going to affect what is going to happen in the Senate," said Representative Matthew J. Rinaldo, a New Jersey Republican who co-sponsored the bill in the House.

"I think the administration veto threat is grounded in the fear of over-regulation, and that is not the case with this bill," Mr. Rinaldo said.

The move to defy a veto threat by the administration, which has a perfect record of having 13 vetoes in a row upheld, is the latest signal of the political momentum for ensuring low price and good service for cable customers.

Representative Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who sponsored the House bill, said it was "addressing real problems ... in a surgical and balanced manner," and Representa

tive John Bryant, D-Texas, called it "the best bill that could be produced under the circumstances."

Some in the industry argued that the real impact of the bill would depend on how the FCC interpreted and used its new authority.

An amendment to allow phone companies to enter the cable field lacked the votes this year, but lobbyists for the Bell companies and others vowed to push it again next year.

Advocates argue that allowing phone companies to own the data that travels over their lines is crucial to developing a modern fiber optic telecommunications network in the

United States.

But others, including the television, newspaper and cable industries, argue that phone companies would monopolize the nation's information networks if they owned both data and the means to carry it.

Consumer groups were supportive of the bill.

"I can't believe the administration would be so anti-consumer to veto a bill that will stabilize and bring down cable rates and make satellite dish reception cheaper, while at the same time opening the door to competition," said Gene Kimmelman of the Consumer Federation of America.

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