Phone, cable TV barriers could fall

December 20, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration is poised to make broad changes in communications policy and will give its support this week to legislation that would break down the legal barriers that currently separate the telephone and cable television industries.

Tomorrow, Vice President Al Gore plans to give the first of two major speeches outlining this and other principles in the administration's plan for a "national information infrastructure."

Broadly, Mr. Gore will support bills now pending in Congress permitting greater competition between the cable and telephone industries as well as moves to relax restrictions that bar local telephone companies from competing in the business of providing long-distance service.

He is also expected to push for new measures to ensure that advanced communication services reach schools, inner cities and rural areas.

The White House is also drafting plans to establish an electronic procurement system for the federal government, and it plans to expand the amount of government information available over computer networks without charge.

These measures, formulated with the input of private industry, represent a level of broad agreement on how to overhaul communications law that would have seemed unthinkable just a few months ago.

The new consensus is being driven largely by the forces of technology and by changes in the marketplace, which are undermining the assumptions behind the thick mesh of regulations in recent decades.

As a result, there is now a strong chance that Washington will adopt the most far-reaching changes in telecommunications policy since the breakup of the old Bell System 10 years ago. The changes would have a great impact on both consumers and business.

The message closely dovetails with the bipartisan efforts in Congress and with a new level of agreement in the normally fractious communications industry. But although there is broad agreement on principles, any opposition to the changes will come in battles over the details -- for example, safeguards that might be imposed to prevent unfair competition.

"The stars are now aligned for historic legislation in 1994, there's no question about it," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications. Mr. Markey and Rep. Jack Fields, R-Texas, have introduced legislation that would let telephone and cable television companies compete head-to-head and would allow new rivals to challenge local telephone monopolies.

For consumers, the changes point to greater choice but also greater complexity in local communication services.

Policy makers and the industry appear headed toward a "two-wire" future, in which cable and telephone companies would offer a full range of video and voice communications in most markets. The big question is how fast this two-wire world will actually materialize.

Long-distance companies like the American Telegraph & Telephone Co. adamantly contend that local telephone companies should not be allowed to provide long-distance service until they give up a big percentage of their markets to new competitors.

Regional Bell companies, on the other hand, argue that they should be allowed to enter the market right away, as long as they adhere to legal safeguards that ensure fair competition.

Some policy makers and experts worry that the recent mergers and alliances between cable and telephone companies will produce media giants that will stifle competition.

The administration seems supportive of the deals, although officials have made it clear that they will prohibit telephone companies from owning both "wires" in the same territory.

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