Into the telecommunications future Compete and/or combine: Landmark legislation will affect every home, every business.

February 05, 1996

HERE WE GO! The tank is full, the motor is purring, instructions are in hand if a little confusing, and the nation is ready to go roaring down the information super-highway. Trouble is, there's no road map. This is no journey for the timid. It calls for the derring-do, the worship of technology and a willingness to plunge into the unknown that Americans consider part of the national character.

This first thorough overhaul of communications law since Depression days is touted to put the U.S. ahead of the rest of the world, create thousands of jobs, foster free-for-all competition and lower prices for phone, television, cable and interactive communications services. Consumer advocates are highly suspicious, fearing higher phone and cable bills.

One of the frankest assessments comes from Rep. Jack Fields, the Texas Republican who chairs the House telecommunications subcommittee. "Few of us," he says, "really understand what we are unleashing." However, what almost everyone has come to understand is that the nation cannot afford to adhere to obsolete laws designed for an age long gone.

Under the new bipartisan legislation, long-distance telephone carriers, local telephone monopolies, TV broadcasters, cable system operators, media companies and other players will be allowed to invade one another's markets in a scene of intensifying competition. But along with competition will come a new freedom to combine into mega-corporations offering a full menu of telecommunications services.

The situation will put huge pressures on the Federal Communications Commission and state regulatory bodies. Bureaucrats may be deciding more winners and losers than current deregulatory rhetoric suggests. One thing sure: lots of employment for lawyers and lobbyists.

Along with the dazzling prospect of turning every home into a multi-media center, every business into an inhabitant of cyberspace, the communications bill raises two hot First Amendment issues: first, a requirement that new TV sets be implanted with a "V chip" that will enable parents to block programs they consider unsuitable; second, a provision imposing criminal penalties on persons putting obscene material into the Internet. The Supreme Court may have the last word.

Another issue is whether new spectrum for high-definition digital television should be licensed free to broadcasters or auctioned off to raise multi-billions for the U.S. Treasury. Rather than delay the bill, Senate majority leader Bob Dole settled for a promise to reconsider the matter before any licenses are granted.

In our view the new telecom bill charts a journey that has to be taken. It will require careful monitoring and intellectual flexibility on the part of government, industry and consumers for as long as we can foresee.

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