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Congress works to decipher babble vs. bytes

Members of the House Commerce Committee debate regulation that would allow Bell companies to deliver Net services, or data packets, over long distances.

    WASHINGTON--Perhaps what federal regulators need is an engineer so well trained in digital technology that he or she could watch ones and zeros flying by at light speed and discern which are part of a data file and which are a voice transmission.

    Members of the House Commerce Committee spent last week debating over a bill that on the surface would not do much more than allow Bell companies to deliver Internet services, or data packets, over long distances. However, the bill introduced April 24 by that committee's chairman, Billy Tauzin of Louisiana and the committee's top Democrat, John Dingell of Michigan, requires that a distinction be made between voice and data that many members felt was impossible in a digital era.

    "This creates a technological land of make-believe where bits can be magically separated into voice and data," Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said April 25 at a hearing on the bill. In contrast to the convergence of separate services in the binary code of ones and zeros, Markey said the Tauzin-Dingell bill represented "a digital divergence."

    The debate grew strong enough that Tauzin admitted during the vote Thursday that digital services can't be distinguished in transit. Lobbyists opposing the bill, such as CompTel President H. Russell Frisby, said after the vote that even though Tauzin-Dingell passed the subcommittee 19-14, at least they had won a concession from a sponsor that the regulatory distinctions that will be asked of state and federal regulators will be difficult at best.

    It was a necessary concession on Tauzin's part, as some otherwise supportive members were troubled over the issue of distinct digital services.

    "I support the goal of this legislation," said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Cal., who ultimately voted for the bill, "but there is no distinction worth making between voice and data."

    Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., agreed. "Voice will become a giveaway service" offered digitally by DSL and other providers as part of packaged services in the near future, he said, pointing to the continued decline in profits from voice services suffered by companies such as AT&T, WorldCom and Sprint.

    Tauzin-Dingell "is a sham," Pickering said. "You cannot separate voice from data."

    Breaking down the bits
    Members of Congress are accustomed to using legislation to right perceived wrongs in the market. Tauzin and Dingell believe Bells lack the incentive to provide high-speed Internet service to rural areas because they are more heavily regulated than cable modem providers, and that argument won the day at last week's subcommittee vote.

    But their bill also includes language that would prevent Bells from using their new freedom in transporting data to also transport voice long-distance, something they can only do now if they win Federal Communications Commission approval after showing they've opened their networks to competitors in particular states.

    The question on many members' minds last week was: How can regulators tell if a Bell is transporting data or voice?

    Pickering introduced an amendment that would have prevented the deregulation of the Bells from taking effect unless the FCC first received from an independent expert a definitive method for identifying ones and zeros as being either data or voice.

    "This is the cleverest amendment of all" the ones from opponents of the bill, Tauzin said. "You don't get this (deregulation) until you do what is impossible to do, separate in a digital fashion voice and data."

    Pickering was only able to muster 10 votes for his amendment, vs. 21 in opposition. After the final vote on the bill in subcommittee, Pickering said Tauzin's victory margin for the overall bill "will probably be larger in full committee" than the 19-14 win in subcommittee, a vote that could occur as early as May 1.

    The debate over regulating digital services isn't expected to go away, but Tauzin-Dingell supporters were confident that the worst was behind them on the issue as far as this bill was concerned.

    "The argument is not going to derail the bill," vowed Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson.