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Senate speeds onto infopike

Key senators caught up to their counterparts in the House of Representatives Thursday by offering sweeping information superhighway legislation.

The bill, which if enacted would constitute the most dramatic rewrite of communications law in 60 years, borrows much of the same lingo from House legislation.

More importantly, a bipartisan group of 12 of the 20 members of Sen. Ernest Hollings’ SenateEuropean group, U.S. to team on info network, page 26

Commerce Committee are co-sponsoring the bill, thus presumably ensuring passage out of committee. The measure would:

  • Lift restrictions against telephone companies’ provision of cable TV services, and vice versa.

  • Guarantee telephonelike service to all Americans by requiring companies delivering video and text on the infopike to pay into a universal access fund.

  • Allow regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) to enter the long-distance phone biz, as long as the FCC and attorney general approve the entry.

The Senate bill also tosses a bone to broadcasters — who thus far have been left out of much of the infopike debate — by allowing TV and radio stations to use a portion of the precious radio spectrum to provide data delivery and other non-traditional services. Broadcasters would be required to pay an unspecified fee to enter new lines of business.

The bill directs the FCC to review whether rules barring broadcasters from owning more than 12 stations nationally, or more than one station in a market, should be changed so long as “media diversity” is preserved. The FCC is also ordered to consider whether rules favorable to broadcasters — such as the syndicated exclusivity regs — should be extended beyond cable to the telcos.

Hollings said the bill is designed to end the “chaos” that he claims has reigned in the telecommunications industry since a federal judge broke up Ma Bell a decade ago. The bill hopes to “put (the) FCC back in business”

by making the agency more responsible for formulating industry rules.

Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), a co-sponsor, said, “The time has come for the rules and legislation to catch up with the real world of today.”

Hollings (D-S.C.) said he plans to hold hearings on the bill within the month and that he hopes legislation will be forwarded to the Senate floor by summer.

National Assn. of Broadcasters prez Eddie Fritts said he’s “gratified” the Senate has taken into consideration the interests of broadcasters. NBC topper Robert Wright praised the Senate for “recognizing the broadcast industry must be a main artery of the information superhighway.”

National Cable Television Assn. chieftain Decker Anstrom said cablers are “concerned” that the Senate bill does not allow for “staged entry” of phone companies into the cable business. NCTA has unsuccessfully pressed for a provision that would bar telco entry into cable for seven years unless a telco is deemed to face “effective competition” in the delivery of phone service.

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