A federal defense

Vice President Al Gore on Friday dismissed claims that the FCC’s rollback in cable TV rates prompted the collapse of the Bell Atlantic/Tele-Communications Inc. merger. To the contrary, he predicted the decision will help creation of the information superhighway.

Gore’s comments came in an interview with a group of business reporters in his office. The veep called the decision to cut cable rates an extra 7% “extremely well crafted” and “very sound and excellent public policy.”

He said lingo in the new rules that exempt tough rate regulation of cablers who add extra channels and services “will end up accelerating creation of the information superhighway. … I will also predict a new series of (telecommunications) mergers and acquisitions on a smaller scale,” Gore said.

Gore’s comments stand in stark contrast to the claims of TCI president/chief exec John Malone and Bell Atlantic chairman Raymond Smith, who blamed the Federal Communications Commission for the collapse of the biggest merger in telecommunications history (Daily Variety, Feb. 25). His remarks will also quell speculation promoted by congressional Republicans and cable lobbyists that the White House did not support new FCC chairman Reed Hundt’s get-tough approach to cable.

Looking around the room of reporters, Gore said: “I’m tempted to ask for a show of hands and ask how many believe the explanations given (by the two companies’ for calling off the deal). I mean, really.” Later, the veep saidthe merger was “on the rocks and (they) were looking for a reason to call it off. … The two corporate cultures (cable and telco) mixed like oil and water.”

Gore said he saw pros and cons in the Bell Atlantic/TCI merger, adding that he believes it would have received regulatory clearance. The collapse of the deal “opens the way for a lot of other deals,” he said.

Gore, who hand-picked Hundt as the FCC chairman, admitted he met with his old high school pal just five days before the agency reached its decision. However, Gore said, the two had “zero discussions about any matters pending before the FCC. That’s one of the ground rules of our relationship.”

Gore, a constant cable critic during his days in the Senate, once called TCI’s Malone the Darth Vader of the cable industry. Asked whether he stands by those comments, Gore first joked that Malone now is “somewhere between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.” He then said he has “found it wise in my new role to make fewer ad hominem comments.”

The vice president offered a guarantee that historic infopike legislation will be signed into law this year, but he said a House-Senate conference committee will be the key venue for deciding specifics of the bill. The Clinton administration’s proposals — which thus far have received a lukewarm welcome in Congress — will be incorporated into the final bill, Gore promised.

Gore shrugged off a suggestion that broadcasters have been ignored during the infopike debate. He said broadcasters are the “flagship of the wireless industry” and will play a critical role in the future of telecommunications. “I would invest in the future of broadcasting,” said Gore.

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