Long-distance industry battles pro-Bell legislation


WASHINGTON -- The two heavyweight contenders in the struggle for control of the nation's information infrastructure slugged it out in front of a House Judiciary subcommittee yesterday, each trying to put its stamp on legislation that would rewrite the nation's basic telecommunications law.

After a hearing that one wag compared to a meeting of divorcing spouses over custody of the family dog, it was the Baby Bells who appeared to outpoint the long-distance telephone industry on the most contentious issue in the package of telecommunications reform bills making their way through Congress.

The two industries are at odds over the Brooks-Dingell bill, which would allow the regional Bell companies to offer long-distance telephone service from their home markets -- something that now is prohibited under the 1982 settlement of the antitrust suit that broke up AT&T.;

The long-distance providers made an effort to persuade committee members to amend the bill to make the regional Bells jump through more federal hoops to gain entry into the in-state long-distance business.

But most members appeared reluctant to tinker with the "delicate balance" struck between competing interests when the two powerful committee chairmen cut a deal last fall.

Brooks-Dingell, which represents a compromise between the regional Bells and the nation's newspaper publishers, has since become a pillar of the Clinton administration's telecommunications deregulation policy.

Rep. Jack Brooks, the Texas Democrat who rules the Judiciary Committee, signaled his thinking when Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan., suggested that the compromises embodied in the legislation are not "The Holy Grail."

"Close," rasped Mr. Brooks.

Yesterday's hearing of the Judiciary subcommittee on Economic and Commercial Law started with Mr. Brooks' announcement ZTC that he would seat the three-man panels representing each industry at the same table "just like they're friends."

John D. Zeglis, a senior vice president of AT&T;, was quick to dispel that notion -- delivering a toughly worded warning about the perils of letting the regional Bell operating companies sell long-distance service before competition has been fully established in the local market. "The local telephone exchanges are still monopolies -- rock-solid," he said.

If allowed to provide in-state long-distance service, they would quickly use their control of the local "bottleneck" to remonopolize the market, Mr. Zeglis said.

"The local exchange bottleneck is just so much baloney in the current environment," said Richard Odgers, executive vice president of Pacific Telesis.

From there the discussion degenerated into a series of charges and countercharges. Bell Atlantic Corp. President James G. Cullen accused Mr. Zeglis of "a major flip-flop" over AT&T;'s interpretation of the divestiture agreement. "The record will prove Mr. Cullen wrong on that!" Mr. Zeglis interjected.

In the end, the Bell companies said they didn't like everything that was in the bill, but that it was a fair compromise. "We support this bill period -- no buts, no clauses," Mr. Cullen told Mr. Brooks, who co-wrote the bill along with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

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