If you've got a phone, you've got a stake in telecommunications reform.
When Congress comes back from vacation next month, a conference committee will take up the most heavily lobbied legislation since the health debacle of 1994 -- rewriting the Communications Act of 1934.
To call the telecommunications bills passed by the House and Senate this summer "sweeping" or "major" or "landmark" is to damn by understatement. Whether the final version comes closer to the Senate's or the House's, it will affect to some degree any American who watches television, listens to radio or makes phone calls.
The impact will fall heaviest on the people who work in the telecommunications sector of the economy. They are the ones who will be watching most closely as Congress tries to reconcile two significantly different bills and President Clinton decides whether to sign whatever passes.
For Maryland businesspeople, the stakes are high.
Walt Frazier is counting on it to launch the sales of satellite dishes into a higher orbit. David Amy says it gives his company freedom to expand. Clyde Heintzelman believes it will let him serve his customers better. Bill Gibson says it will let him get paid for services he now must give away for free. Cathy Hughes fears it will imperil diversity on the airwaves.
The ways in which it would redefine the relationships of the local telephone, long-distance and cable TV industries have been the subject of countless articles and a lobbying blitz second only to last year's health care debate.
But beyond the headline issues, the eventual law, if it becomes that, would have an especially heavy impact on telecommunications-related businesses of virtually all kinds.
Maryland has a broad enough representation of telecommunications-related companies and affected organizations to illustrate the sheer breadth of the legislation.
These represent only a smattering of the industries that would be affected. Many others would feel ripple effects that now are impossible to predict.
The phone company: Bell Atlantic Corp.
Maryland's most obvious beneficiary of telecommunications deregulation is its dominant regional Bell operating company (RBOC), Bell Atlantic Corp. In the battle of lobbyists that has gripped Washington this summer, the RBOC team has clearly beaten the long-distance team, and Bell Atlantic executives can find a lot to like in both bills.
Essentially, what Bell Atlantic and the other RBOCs get out of both bills is the elimination of most of the curbs on their activities imposed in the breakup of the old Bell system in 1984. Gone will be the restrictions on their getting into the long-distance market, the cable television business and electronic equipment manufacturing.
The quid pro quo is that to enjoy these freedoms, the regional Bells will have to give up their monopoly in the local exchange. Since that monopoly already is eroding, the Bells are more than ** willing to make the swap as long as they can get an early entry into the long-distance marketplace on favorable terms.
The terms the RBOCs got, especially in the House version of the bill, are favorable enough that the long-distance companies are talking veto. The Senate bill, which they previously viewed as a bad bill, now looks almost friendly by comparison.
Dan Whelan, chief executive of Bell Atlantic-Maryland, said that if the House bill passes his "guesstimate" is that the company could be in the long-distance business in 1997.
Mr. Whelan said adoption of the bill would bring Maryland customers more advanced service introduced more quickly and at a lower price than is possible today.
"The more you increase competition, the more the benefits flow to all segments of the market," he said.
The next most important issue the bills address, Mr. Whelan said, is that they would remove any remaining doubts about the telephone companies' legal right to get into cable TV. It's a business that Bell Atlantic is hungry for a piece of.
Long-distance company: MCI Communications Corp.
For Nate Davis, the problem with both versions of the telecommunications bill is one of trust. He doesn't trust the regional Bells, and he believes the legislation fails to provide adequate safeguards that they won't stall his company's entry into the local market.
Mr. Davis' employer, MCI, is best known as the nation's second-largest long-distance company, but it also has designs on the local phone business through its MCImetro subsidiary. One of the first states in which MCImetro plans to challenge an incumbent RBOC is Maryland, where it already has the Public Service Commission's permission to enter the business market and plans to launch service in the fourth quarter of the year.
"On the Metro side, any federal legislation that passes will accelerate our ability to get into the local market," said Mr. Davis, chief operating officer of MCImetro. "It doesn't necessarily accelerate our actual competition."