Rep signals for an exit at D.C. infopike hearing

Consumers should be permitted to “opt out” of the information superhighway if they so desire, Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Thursday.

Wyden’s comments came on the second of two days of infopike hearings in the House of Representatives, where Clinton administration officials again stressed the importance of passing in tandem two pieces of legislation designed to spur telephone company entry into the cable TV business and permit local phone companies into the long-distance market.

Larry Irving, head of the Commerce Dept. agency that advises the White House on telecommunications issues, said he supports Wyden’s proposal in principle. However, he said, the administration also hopes to see as many new technologies as possible flow to consumers via the infopike.

But, Wyden countered, “We don’t want to create the specter of folks being dragged across the superhighway against their will.” He added later, “At some point, we’ve got to avoid ramming things down people’s throats.”

Wyden promised to offer hisopt-out amendment later.

The two days of hearings in subcommittees chaired by Rep. Ed Markey (D- Mass.) and Jack Brooks (D-Texas) produced few surprises, the most notable being that the Clinton administration has yet to decide whether to present its own infopike legislative package. After promising legislation for months, the White House announced it will not offer its own bill in the House, and administration sources said it’s unclear whether a bill will be offered in the Senate.

Hollings likely

If the administration submits a bill, the likely sponsor will be influential Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.).

During testimony before Markey’s panel on Thursday, Irving was joined by FCC chairman Reed Hundt and Justice Dept. antitrust division head Anne Bingaman as the administration witnesses.

Several Republicans used the occasion to plead with Hundt not to proceed with a further rollback of cable TV rates. (The FCC is expected to extend a freeze on cable TV prices beyond Feb. 15 and is believed to be weighing price cuts beyond the 10% passed last April.)

Rep. Dan Schaefer (R-Colo.) said he is “growing more and more pessimistic” that the much-hyped information superhighway will deliver on its promise, particularly if the cable industry faces further mandated price cuts. Another FCC rollback in cable rates “would squelch any hopes for vibrant competition” between cablers and telephone companies, Schaefer said.

Hundt said he agrees that companies providing products on the information superhighway should contribute into a fund to pay for extension of the infopike to all Americans wishing to subscribe. The payment would be based on a percentage of a company’s annual revenue, he said.

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