House panel poised to unveil telecom bill

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will meet privately today to review a draft of legislation that would further deregulate the telecommunications industry by making it easier for telephone companies to offer video services and cable companies to provide voice services.   The top lawmakers on the committee, including Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), the ranking Democrat, hashed out details of the draft bill at a meeting Tuesday. Committee aides are expected to share the draft with industry lobbyists today or Friday, said three telecom lobbyists familiar with the details of the meetings. The committee was pressed for time because Barton’s wife is expected to deliver a baby boy this week.

The lobbyists had not reviewed the draft legislation and were hoping it would leak out before today’s meeting, but added that Barton could hold one day of hearings and mark-up a bill in mid- to late October.

The Barton-Dingell bill seeks to be the first overhaul of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

“Four [lawmakers] have signed off on the release of a staff draft, and that is a positive sign that they clearly are trying,” a top telecom lobbyist said. Several other lobbyists were just as pleased, even though they had not seen a copy of the draft yet.

Terry Lane, the panel’s spokesman, said, “We’re still working, and we expect to have an introduction this fall.”

The primary issue for the former Baby Bells — Verizon, SBC Communications Inc., BellSouth and Qwest — is whether government will take a hands-off approach as it did when cable companies began offering voice-over-Internet service.

The government is reviewing SBC’s proposed $16 billion purchase of AT&T Corp., its former parent company, and Verizon’s $6.75 billion merger with MCI Inc. Verizon and SBC are the largest providers of local phone service in the country.

The former Bells are more heavily regulated than the cable companies, which do not have to contribute to the Universal Service Fund or face additional regulatory hurdles at the federal and local levels. When cable companies began offering voice services, the phone companies argued that their potential competitors should be lightly regulated. Now telecom companies are pressing lawmakers for the same relaxed regulatory treatment given to the cable companies.

Additionally, the former Baby Bells want a provision in the legislation that would allow national franchising so that phone companies offering video services would not have to negotiate with hundreds of different local governments. For example, Verizon is trying to enter the cable-television business in 15 states and has had to go to localities to get franchise agreements.

With Congress slow to act, some states are deregulating the industries on their own. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed legislation last week that allows Verizon and SBC to get approval from the state, rather than local governments, to offer new video services over the advanced fiber-optic networks it is building. Cable companies objected to Perry’s decision because they argue that SBC and Verizon now have an unfair advantage.

“We’ve heard that the draft includes good things on franchising,” a telecom lobbyist said, reiterating that he had not seen a copy of the Energy and Commerce staff’s bill. “But there are so many other issues.”

While there is momentum in the House, the Senate is operating on a different timetable. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told reporters this spring that he had hoped to pass telecom legislation during the summer and go to a conference committee in the fall.

Even though several senators have proposed their own reform bills, Stevens will focus only on legislation aimed at relief efforts in the Gulf Coast. He plans to meet with some lawmakers to discuss how to rewrite the telecom law but had no specific timeline, said a committee aide.