Move over Tauzin-Dingell, there's a new bill in town. Senators John Breaux (D-La.) and Don Nickels (R-Okla.) have introduced a bill in the Senate to give more market freedom to Bell phone companies.
The "Broadband Regulatory Parity Act of 2002" is designed to eliminate regulations on phone companies providing DSL services. The bill identifies the FCC as the "appropriate authority" to determine which regulatory requirements, if any, should be retained and which should be eliminated. From the time the bill is enacted, federal regulators would have 120 days to write the rules.
Under the 1996 Telecom Act, the RBOCs are required to allow rival broadband operators to lease access lines tapping their high-speed networks. The Bells have argued the requirement is a disincentive for making costly network upgrades, given competitors are allowed to benefit and lure away customers.
"To ensure and encourage the widespread deployment of broadband networks in this country, Congress must level the regulatory playing field in the broadband market," says Breaux. He points out the cable modem providers control 70 percent of the broadband market, but are virtually unregulated.
BellSouth Corp. is supporting the bill. "The best regulation may be no regulation," says Herschel Abbott, BellSouth's vice president of governmental affairs. "but that is probably impractical, so this is a reasonable approach that deserves wide and immediate support in Congress." Abbott contends that if the bill is passed it will enable Bells to compete with cable operators on an equal playing field. "This bill will provide equal treatment for the technologies in the market," he says.
Not everyone is putting their support behind the bill, however. "Senator Breaux's 'parity' bill has the right title, but is wrong on substance," says John Windhausen, president of The Association for Local Telecommunications Services. He claims the Bells reacted too slowly to the market, giving the cable operators a head start. "There is no regulatory impediment to the Bells' deployment of DSL today. The Bell companies are now using their own delay as an argument to put their competitors out of business."
Although many view the bill as a milder version of the Tauzin-Dingell bill, which passed in the House in early March, opponents of the bill claim it is the Tauzin-Dingell. If passed, the bill, called the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act, would lift requirements that Baby Bells open their broadband networks to competitors. South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings has vowed to defeat the bill.