WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration and the top federal communications regulator yesterday softened several of their key objections to a controversial bill that would let telephone companies own cable television networks.
In testimony before a Senate Commerce subcommittee, FCC chairman Alfred C. Sikes and Thomas Sugrue, acting assistant secretary of Commerce in charge of telecommunications policy, strongly suggested that the administration and the Federal Communications Commission were eager to strike a bargain in the bitter political battle.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Sen. Albert Gore Jr., D-Tenn., would repeal a provision of the Cable Television Act of 1984 prohibiting telephone companies from offering cable television.
In exchange , however, the telephone companies would have to agree to upgrade theirnetworks with high-capacity optical fibers by 2015.
Supporters of the legislation argue that lifting the ban would provide much-needed competition to existing cable companies and that it would speed the installation of an advanced communications network that could deliver everything from ordinary telephone conversations to high-speed data transmission and high-definition television.
But the bill has been vigorously opposed by cable companies, newspaper publishers, broadcasters and others who fear that the telephone companies would compete unfairly.
The Bush administration has long supported dropping the ban on cross-ownership of telephone and cable systems, but it also has opposed the bill's mandated timetable for installing optical fibers.