'Baby Bells,' newspaper firms appear near end to dispute Telecommunications law could be revised

November 20, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

A long-standing dispute between the nation's newspaper companies and the seven "Baby Bells" over the role of the regional telephone companies is apparently close to resolution, industry representatives said yesterday.

An agreement between the two industries, which could come as early as next week, would remove a key obstacle to congressional attempts to rewrite the 60-year-old law governing U.S. telecommunications.

"We may be able to do a deal very shortly," said Aubrey Sarvis, vice president of federal relations for Bell Atlantic Corp.

Nancy Jones, a spokeswoman for the Newspaper Association of America, said she was optimistic that the two sides were close to a deal that could resolve the thorny question of whether the Bell companies should be allowed to offer information services while they still enjoy a monopoly over local telephone service.

Talks between the phone companies and the newspaper publishers' group have been conducted in tandem with negotiations between two powerful House committee chairmen who are trying to reshape U.S. telecommunications policy.

According to sources in the telecommunications industry, the two chairmen -- Jack Brooks, a Texas Democrat who heads the Judiciary Committee, and John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who heads the Energy and Commerce Committee -- could resolve their differences and introduce a comprehensive telecommunications bill by Thanksgiving. In recent years, Mr. Brooks has supported the newspaper industry in the dispute; Mr. Dingell has favored the regional Bells.

The regional Bells, created in the 1984 breakup of AT&T, have won a series of court battles that could let them supply information services -- a business activity forbidden to them under the original settlement. Newspaper companies, fearing that the Bells' local monopoly would give them an unfair advantage over other information providers, have been pressing Congress to write that restriction into law.

Mr. Sarvis said the Bells are close to a deal that would give them a toehold in the previously off-limits long-distance telephone market. At the same time, the emerging settlement would address the newspapers' concerns about separating local telephone service from other lines of business that could potentially compete with newspapers.

If the newspapers and the Bells can resolve their remaining differences, it could clear the way for more joint ventures for the two industries, Mr. Sarvis said.

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