Plotting infopike route

The Superhighway Summit proved to be the media circus it was expected to be, with Vice President Al Gore as the ringmaster.

Gore used the all-day, Academy of Television Arts & Sciences-sponsored event at UCLA’s Royce Hall to lay out broad strokes of the Clinton administration’s proposed legislative package for the so-called national information infrastructure.

In addition to allowing telephone companies into the cable business and vice versa, as previously stated in the vice president’s speech to the National Press Club last month (Daily Variety, Dec. 22), the package calls for simplifying and consolidating provisions of the Communications Act under the umbrella Title VII.

As outlined by the vice president, Title VII would create a single regulatory system out of existing provisions and be available to providers of broadband interactive services. Those companies that opt for regulation under Title VII guidelines would avoid “the danger of conflicting or duplicative regulatory burdens,” Gore said, but in return would have to provide access to their facilities and services on a non-discriminatory basis.

To facilitate competition, Gore said, the administration will keep states from imposing barriers on new companies entering the local phone business; allow those companies to offer all the services phone companies currently provide; and seek to transfer oversight from the courts to the Federal Communications Commission and Justice Dept.

The broader issue, Gore and White House officials stressed, is a communications policy that treats similar companies from different business disciplines in the same manner, and one that’s capable of adapting to innovations into the next century.

“We will initiate governmental action that furthers our substantive principles but that adapts, and disappears, as the need for governmental intervention changes and ends,” he said.

For that reason, the address eschewed specifics on actual legislative terms or enforcement provisions, saying in broad strokes that the administration’s intent is to support and protect competition “against both suffocating regulation on the one hand and unfettered monopolies on the other.”

As an example, Gore said he endorses the basic tenets of the Jack Brooks-John Dingell bill in Congress, which proposes a framework for allowing long-distance and local telephone companies to compete. Still, regional Bell companies must not be allowed to leverage their current monopolistic positions into new lines of business, he said.

“Legislative and regulatory action alone will not get us where we need to be, ” Gore said, citing the government’s role as being to “act as a catalyst … then (let) the private and non-profit sector move the ball downfield.”

Larger goals

Picking up from his earlier speech, Gore also spoke of larger goals — among them universal service to avoid a world of information “haves” and “have-nots,” fostering competition, and the need to include schools, libraries and hospitals in the infrastructure.

Toward that end, Gore lauded Tele-Communications Inc. and Bell Atlantic for their plan — announced just a day earlier — to hook more than 25,000 schools into the superhighway. White House officials said even if the announcement was a public-relations ploy to secure support for their $ 30 billion merger, the result is laudable nevertheless.

The vice president also resorted to some staged theatrics, as Lily Tomlin interrupted his speech playing her Ernestine character from “Laugh-In” to make a point about the White House’s outdated communications system when Gore got there.

Lucie leery

At least one member of the audience wasn’t bowled over by the speech. Fox Broadcasting Co. chairman Lucie Salhany wondered aloud during her session how free, over-the-air television would be safeguarded under the current regulatory scheme.

During a question-and-answer period, the vice president said broadcasters would play a “different but vital” role and that rules governing them would continue to be examined, along with the rest of the regulatory spectrum.

“We want to make sure local broadcasters and national broadcast networks are full participants,” a senior White House official said later during a briefing. Larry Irving, assistant secretary for communications and information, will meet with the National Assn. of Broadcasters regarding the proposed package in the next few days.

Administration officials also maintained that it wasn’t important whether the legislative package could be traced to the administration or one of the many senators recognized by the vice president. “We can get anything done provided we don’t worry about who gets the credit,” one aide said.

New Federal Communications Commission president Reed Hundt sounded similar themes in his opening remarks, citing his two-pronged guiding principle as enhancing access to markets and creating economic growth and jobs by promoting competition. That latter goal, he said, will be considered as the FCC seeks to fully implement the Cable Act and oversees auctioning of spectrum for personal communication services.

Like Gore, Hundt presented the future of communications as a challenge to his audience, calling them, as “travelers” on the superhighway, “the Edisons and Fords of the 21st century.”

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