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Electronic marvels


Baltimoreans could have a breathtaking array of choices for their home entertainment, telephones and other electronic services in the next few years.

As the technological barriers among various forms of communications fall away -- and government regulations maintaining distinctions among them no longer make much sense -- the chatter about the information superhighway becomes more tangible with each new development. The common thread is not just technological leaps. It's also the branching out of telecommunications giants to offer customers a wide variety of services, including some that until now have been the exclusive preserve of a competitor.

Three developments here in little more than a week illustrate the opportunities. Comcast, which serves much of the Baltimore suburbs, announced a major upgrading of its cable system that will greatly improve picture and sound quality, double the number of channels that will be available to subscribers and lay the groundwork for telephone and interactive computer services in the home.

Not to be outdone, Bell Atlantic has taken some giant leaps into the home entertainment business. A federal judge has cleared the way for it to compete directly with the major cable giants by transmitting television programs anywhere in the nation. And Bell Atlantic is launching a "wireless cable" project to transmit its own television programming into homes by microwave broadcast, saving it the expense of laying expensive cable throughout the metropolitan area.

Part of the history of the telecommunications industry in recent years has been a succession of sensational announcements, some of which failed to materialize. Even so, the technological breakthroughs come thick and fast, needing only marketing savvy and a product that satisfies customers' needs to take over a chunk of the home electronics services business. That means hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues.

With that much money at stake, it's no surprise the lobbyists are hard at work trying to protect their clients' turf and get them a bit of a competitive edge in new regulations. The principal battleground is the revision of the 61-year-old Communications Act that imposes horse-and-buggy regulatory mechanisms on thoroughbred racers.

Once again the Senate Commerce Committee has crafted a bill that it believes will tear down regulatory barriers between various arms of the industry that no longer make sense and also create a level playing field for competitors. Its previous attempt last fall died in a power brokers' wrangle. With so much at stake it's not yet certain the same thing won't happen in this Congress.

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