Rural Cable Buyouts By Telcos Ok’d

Telephone companies would be permitted to buy out cable TV firms in rural areas of 35,000 or fewer people under a deal reached by aides to members of a House-Senate conference committee hammering out differences in telecom deregulation legislation.

The agreement on the telco-cable buyout provision signals some progress among conference committee members, though Rep. Jack Fields (R-Texas) on Nov. 9 voiced impatience during a speech to broadcasters. “Things are going much slower than I would prefer,” said Fields, who as head of the House telecommunications subcommittee was a chief architect of the telecom dereg bill.

Fields nevertheless expressed hope that the conference bill can be completed by Thanksgiving, and said it would be “an absolute travesty for our country” if the legislation is not signed into law. Conferees have yet to debate two thorny issues in the bill that have raised the ire of the White House: relaxing cable TV price controls, and allowing unprecedented media concentration among telephone, cable and broadcast industries.

Earlier in the week, Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) set Nov. 15 as the deadline for lawmakers to hammer out differences in House and Senate dereg legislation. But congressional aides were openly skeptical about the timetable.

The telecom dereg bill represents a radical overhaul of 61 years of communications law. Supporters claim it will result in unfettered competition among industries; consumer groups say it will lead to higher telephone and cable rates.

Under the legislation passed by both the House and Senate earlier this year, telcos would have been permitted to buy out cable companies in “non-urban” areas of fewer than 50,000 people.

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