The House Judiciary Committee begins hearings today on the Cannon-Conyers Package, a set of bills intended to strengthen requirements of the 1996 Telecom Act that require RBOCs to open the local markets to competitors.

The package, introduced earlier this month, opposes the Tauzin-Dingell bill (HR 1542), which seeks to open the long-distance market to the RBOCs and better allow them meet the growing demand for high-speed service.

Today's hearings will cover the antitrust implications of the '96 Telecom Act and the package's efforts to clarify that antitrust laws do apply in this area, as intended in the Act, according to a House advisory.

"All eyes are on (committee Chair F. James) Sensenbrenner and on how he will handle himself," Covad senior counsel Meredith Attwell tells CEDaily. Covad has been a vocal proponent of Cannon-Conyers. The package's proponents are encouraged that he'll fight for his jurisdiction, and, "Most of the committee will take a lead from him," she says.

The hearings come after a May 1 letter Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) wrote to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). The letter says, "HR 1542 eviscerates the Justice Department's role (in monitoring monopolies) and eliminates the bargain reached in 1996 to allow local telephone monopolies to enter the long-distance market after they open their local markets," he wrote. Section 271 of the Communications Act outlines the framework to eliminate monopoly power in the local phone market and the Justice Department plays a critical role, he said at the time. "There are several bases for Judiciary Committee jurisdiction over HR 1542, but in particular the undermining of 271 alone suffices to place the bill within our purview." He also requested plenty of time to go over the bill.

Attwell says she expected Tauzin's committee to file its report Friday, and now expects it before Memorial Day. At that point, HR 1542 could go to Sensenbrenner's committee. Word on the street, she says, is that the Judiciary will get 30 days to look at it. "We were hoping for 60 days, but 30 days is normal," Attwell says.

Both bills will determine the role of antitrust in the next decade and how it will play out, Attwell says. What the judiciary does will determine its role and how that's maintained.

"We are at a crux," she says.

Observers say aside from the blistering letter, Sensenbrenner is remaining objective on the issue, although he has indicated he'd like another hearing on Tauzin-Dingell.

The question is when? "That's what his staff is asking," Attwell says. "When?"