REPUBLICANS SET TO REPAVE INFOPIKE WITH LEGISLATION

House Republicans have offered sweeping information superhighway legislation that would allow telephone company entry into the cable TV business after 15 months while simultaneously lifting FCC price controls on cable’s upper program tiers.

The bill represents a radical rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act, the law under which telephone companies, cablers and broadcasters are regulated. A similar deregulatory bill died in the last session of Congress, and the fate of this year’s legislation remains clouded by turf battles among the GOP leadership and opposition from the Clinton administration.

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Key sponsors of the May 2 bill include House Commerce Committee chairman Thomas Bliley (R-Va.), ranking Democrat John Dingell (D-Mich.) and House telecommunications subcommittee chairman Jack Fields (R-Texas).

But Rep. Ed Markey, the ranking Democrat on Fields’ subcommittee, refused to sign on. Markey was wooed by Fields, but the Massachusetts Democrat said his co-sponsorship was “not in the cards” after Republicans insisted on lingo granting cablers sweeping relief from rate regulation.

Separate bills were offered by Reps. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) that would dramatically ease broadcast ownership rules. Fields said he intends to wrap the proposals into one piece of legislation.

The Clinton administration has already weighed in against easing the rules. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown criticized the House bill, saying the measure “would actually unleash monopolies before competition exists in the marketplace.” He said the legislation “will be a direct hit on consumers’ pocketbooks.”

Democratic opposition

Most Democrats are expected to oppose Oxley’s bill, which would remove rules that bar foreigners from owning more than 25% of U.S. broadcast properties. “I have real problems with foreign interests controlling ABC, CBS and NBC for the same reason that we (Americans) won’t be able to purchase networks in Paris, Tokyo or Berlin,” said Markey. “This is central to the control of culture.”

Beltway insiders say prospects for final passage of the legislation are dicey, in part because House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) entered the fray with his own bill requiring the Dept. of Justice to clear Baby Bell telco entry into the long-distance phone market.

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