Senate communications subcommittee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) stunned members of his panel Wednesday when he called for a vote within the next several weeks on legislation that would grant telephone companies entry into cable TV.
Inouye’s announcement came after ahearing in which witnesses and members of the subcommittee gave decidedly mixed reviews to the legislation, called the Universal Service and Telecommunications Infrastructure Development Act of 1993.
Ironically, the telephone companies themselves voiced some of the strongest opposition.
Capitol Hill staffers and D.C. lobbyists expressed surprise that Inouye called for a vote before Congress’ August recess. Because of the subject’s complexity and the lack of strong support for the measure, Inouye had been expected to delay a vote perhaps until next year.
Surprise vote called
Ward White, a lobbyist for the U.S. Telephone Assn., said Inouye’s gambit is unusual in that the Hawaii Democrat proceeds cautiously before most crucial votes.
“This looks like an effort to bring (members of the subcommittee) out of the woodwork” and “force them to decide on the controversial issue,” White said.
White added that he would not be surprised to see the actual subcommittee vote postponed until after the August recess.
Telco opposition to the bill stems mostly from provisions to open the local telephone network to competition from other industries, including cable TV operators.
White said it’s unfair to allow cable to compete in the delivery of telephone company service until it’s determined whether cablers will face the same requirements that telcos face.
Cablers’ thumbs down
The cable industry opposes the portion that would allow telcos to compete directly with cable operators. Comcast Corp. prez Brian Roberts, testifying on behalf of the National Cable Television Assn., argued that telcos should be barred from delivering video services until they face “effective competition” in the local telephone market.
Inouye’s bill is co-sponsored by another powerful legislator, Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.).
The legislation is designed to spur private investment in the nation’s communications networks, including telephone service and cable TV. Such investment will speed the deployment of fiber-optic superhighways, the bill’s authors maintain.