The Senate, largely disconnected from telecommunications deregulation in recent months, pushed its way back into the debate yesterday as a bipartisan coalition of senators unveiled a bill that puts universal service first and competition in second place.
The bill, introduced by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, will become the upper chamber's chief legislative vehicle in the effort to rewrite the nation's 60-year-old basic telecommunications law. The bill picked up the support of most of the Senate's leaders on telecommunications issues, including Republicans John C. Danforth of Missouri and Ted Stevens of Alaska and Democrat Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii.
In most respects, the bill shares the philosophy of its companion measures in the House, which had stolen the spotlight from the Senate through the introduction of the Brooks-Dingell and Markey-Fields bills.
Like those bills, the Senate measure would open the cable television, telephone equipment manufacturing, long-distance and local telephone exchange industries to competitors in an effort to stimulate the development of a national information infrastructure.
But the Senate bill differs sharply from Brooks-Dingell by imposing a stiff competition test that the regional Bell companies must meet before they can enter the long-distance telephone business.
The bill requires the Bells to show the Federal Communications Commission that there is "no substantial possibility" that they will be able to use their local market power to hobble competition before they can enter the long-distance business outside their territories.
Within their service areas, they would also have to show the FCC they face real competition before they can offer long-distance service.
The House bills would leave that determination to the states in the case of intrastate long distance.
The Hollings bill also differs from the House measures in that it explicitly instructs the FCC to write the ground rules for sharing the burden of universal access before opening the phone markets to competition.
The bill drew a warm response from the long-distance industry, which had made scant progress Wednesday in persuading the House to make changes in the Brooks-Dingell bill, which imposes an easier standard for the Bells to compete.
The legislation was far less popular with the local Bells.
"At this point, the bill opens up our markets to even greater competition while giving us minimal competitive opportunities, with the exception of cable relief," said Aubrey Sarvis, Bell Atlantic's vice president for federal relations.
The critical differences between the House approach and the Senate approach indicate that the final decisions on the shape of the legislation will likely be made in conference committee after the two chambers act.
Both houses are expected to pass bills this year.