A Modern Communications Law

June 20, 1995

One thing, and perhaps only one thing, is certain if the telecommunications bill passed by the Senate is enacted in its present form. The ways in which the U.S. public communicates, is entertained and performs its work will change dramatically. The legislation is being touted as inaugurating a revolution in communications, which it does, and as a boon to the consumer, which it may prove to be eventually. We hope so, but we're keeping our fingers crossed.

The bill would replace a horse-and-buggy federal communications law made obsolete by the massive changes in telephone, cable and broadcasting in the past decade. It is a welcome reform of outdated, cumbersome regulatory procedures. But it is immensely complicated legislation that was heavily lobbied, and significantly amended, in the hours before the Senate's lopsided vote of approval. There are provisions in it that, almost certainly, only a lobbyist and a few senators really understand.

A useful reminder is the cable rate deregulation law passed in 1992, which this bill would repeal. Supporters had high hopes it would force cable companies to reduce their rates drastically. Ultimately a lot of consumers felt let down. The vast array of telecommunications devices and services now reaching the market are proving difficult to corral legislatively.

Still, the philosophic foundation of the bill is sound. In a rapidly changing technical and marketing environment, competition is the consumer's best guarantee of good service at the most economical price. But competition as defined in the intense lobbying battle over the bill is more a matter of relative advantage for rival industries. Each professes to seek a level playing field while actually struggling to protect its own turf from rivals as long as possible. Among the toughest issues are the conditions under which local telephone companies will be permitted to offer long-distance services, long-distance providers will be allowed into local markets and cable companies or utilities will sell communications services.

In the last Democrat-controlled Congress, a telecommunications bill passed the House overwhelmingly but died in the Senate because not all major interests were satisfied. This time a Republican Senate has crafted a delicate balance of interests. The public will not learn how well its interests were served for several years after the House acts.

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