The Information Highway

February 07, 1994

The devil is in the details, they like to say in Washington these days. Nowhere is that more true than in the growing debate over a new national communications policy.

Vice President Al Gore, the Clinton administration's chief computer wonk, has outlined the beginnings of a new approach to federal laws that date back, in some instances, to the days of the vacuum tube. Much of what he has said, in speeches over the past few months, sounds sensible. Translating those principles into legislation won't be easy.

Probably the wisest provision of the administration's emerging policy is the commitment to make regulation flexible so it can keep up with technological change. No sooner does the telecommunications industry absorb one startling development than another comes along. It may be a new marketing technique, one competitor swallowing another or the emergence of an unexpected entrant. Federal communications law was developed in a time of neat divisions among purveyors. Those days are gone forever, and the laws enacted then must be modified.

Some of the bedrock principles that have governed federal regulation since 1934 should be continued. One is the preservation of competition among communications services. The other is the guarantee of reasonably priced essential services, such as local telephones, for all who need them. The administration recognizes these obligations, as do other bills already introduced in Congress. The challenge is to permit traditionally distinct industries, like telephone and cable companies, to offer each other's services without becoming monopolies. Not to mention the possibility that electric utilities might decide to deliver entertainment or data along with the kilowatts to the homes and businesses they serve. Newspapers like this one, home shopping networks like QVC, video renters like Blockbuster -- all are jockeying for a niche.

Billions of dollars are at stake in the decisions about to be made on communications regulation. So is the quality, availability and cost of the information revolution which is transforming the way we work and relax. The fruits of success in tilting regulation one way or another will be sweet, indeed. The administration's declarations of principle are a good start; few will dissent from them. But this is just the start of a major tug of war in Congress among the interests of rival communicators and the needs of the public. When the laws are finally drafted, there will be big winners and big losers. It's the administration's responsibility to make sure the consumer is among the winners.

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