HOUSE committee clears high-speed Internet measure

Thursday, May 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The nation's largest phone companies _ the regional Bells _ would have to make high-speed Internet service available at a number of their facilities each year under a bill approved by the House Commerce Committee.

In exchange for having to meet the five-year rollout requirement, SBC, Verizon, Qwest and BellSouth would be freed from certain government regulations under the measure, which cleared the committee Wednesday by a 32-23 vote. The bill now goes to the House floor.

Namely, the bill would allow the Bells to carry Internet traffic in their calling region without having to first meet strict government requirements that they open their local phone markets to competition.

The measure also addresses important equipment in the Bells' network that are key to providing new online services. Under the bill, the Bells would not have to lease these network parts to rivals. Instead, competing businesses would have to build their own equipment.

The bill's sponsors, Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., and John Dingell of Michigan, the panel's top Democrat, say the legislation will bring the next generation of Web services to more Americans, especially in rural and underserved areas.

With the regulations loosened, the Bells also say they would have greater economic incentive and capability to bring high-speed Internet connections _ dozens of times quicker than standard dial-ups _ to consumers nationwide. Only a small fraction of Web users _ mostly in cities and dense areas _ have such capability now.

To hold the Bells to that pledge, the committee included an amendment in the bill that would set benchmarks for the companies to meet in delivering new Internet services to communities.

If the bill becomes law, the Bells would have to be able to provide high-speed Internet service in 20 percent of their central offices _ or main telephone switching centers _ within a year. Two years out, they would have to have this capability in 40 percent of their offices; and by five years, 100 percent of their central offices would have to be able to offer fast Web access.

The Bell companies could use their phone lines to deliver these fast connections and meet the requirements. They could also employ other technologies, like satellite or wireless, to provide customers in hard-to-reach places with Internet service.

``It does in fact ensure that center cities and rural areas won't be left out,'' Tauzin said.

Bell companies pointed out that the cable industry, their chief competitor in the market for high-speed Internet service, does not face such requirements for offering service.

``That certainly concerns us,'' said John Emra of SBC Communications, the nation's second largest local phone carrier.

But the Bells scored a major victory when a measure that would have forced them to share high-speed Internet equipment with rivals was defeated.

``The sole purpose of this bill is to kill local competition,'' said H. Russell Frisby, head of CompTel, a trade association that represents Bells rivals. He said consumers would suffer with less choices for their Internet and phone services and higher rates.

John Windhausen Jr., president of the Association for Local Telecommunications Services, which represent Bell competitors, said the committee vote signals that the bill could face an uphill battle before the full House.

``This is far from a done deal,'' he said.