Communicating Again


Of all the areas of the economy that cry out for relaxed government controls, telecommunications heads the list.

The industry is changing so rapidly regulators have a hard time keeping up -- especially at the federal level, where the governing rules come from a 61-year-old statute as obsolete as a vacuum tube and a 10-year-old antitrust decision that harks back to the dial telephone. Congress appeared to be on the verge of updating the 1934 Communications Act last year but the effort to balance conflicting interests fell apart at the last minute.

In a remarkably short time, the Senate Commerce Committee is back where it left off almost six months ago. Now under Republican control, the committee has produced a bill that has wide bipartisan support. It would tear down the legal walls that separate different arms of the telecommunications industry, which has already pierced them technologically. Essentially, regional telephone companies like Bell Atlantic, long-distance carriers like AT&T; and cable companies like Comcast would be able to compete with each other.

Three recent local examples of the possibilities in just the last week: Comcast, which serves much of the Baltimore suburbs, announced a major upgrade in its cable network that will greatly improve quality, double the number of channels and lay the groundwork for telephone and interactive computer services. Bell Atlantic got clearance from a federal judge to compete directly with the major cable operators by transmitting television anywhere in the nation. And it announced plans to broadcast the equivalent of cable service by microwave in this region, eliminating the need for laying wires.

Rather than chip away gradually at the obsolete regulations, as Judge Harold Greene did in modifying his 1984 antitrust decision, the Senate bill would modernize the rules for everyone simultaneously. Still, there are hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, and the lobbying is as fierce as Washington has seen in many years. Though the rivals like to make their cases in terms of what's best for the consumer, the quarrel is really over who gets a head start in capturing market share.

Judging from last year's struggle, the battle of the lobbyists won't be over until President Clinton crosses the "t" on his signature on a new telecommunications law. Eventually the consumer will benefit from an array of electronic services unimaginable when the old law was enacted -- but only if the new law really assures fair competition among the industrial titans, with the consumer picking the winners.

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