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House to tackle anti-open access bill

A new bill aimed at speeding rollouts of broadband Internet service and protecting the networks of cable companies like AT&T is heading for Congress.

A new bill aimed at speeding rollouts of broadband Internet service and protecting the networks of cable companies like AT&T is headed for Congress.

The measure is slated to be introduced Thursday. Final details, however, are still being worked out between authors Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-Louisiana), chair of the House telecommunications subcommittee, and Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan), the House's leading Democrat on telecommunication issues.

Yet according to the senators' aides, the main thrust of the bill has been decided. It will include provisions that would protect cable operators like AT&T from being forced to open their high-speed networks to competing Internet service providers. Additionally, the bill would reduce regulations on telephone companies' broadband data businesses, the aides said.

"It will say [cable companies] won't have any additional regulatory requirements applied at this time," said Dennis Fitzgibbons, Dingell's press secretary.

Ken Johnson, Tauzin's spokesman, said the bill "is designed to allow the original Bell companies to offer data services across [long distance] lines." Under current law, the dominant local phone companies aren't allowed to carry long distance data or voice traffic on their networks.

The bill's provisions dealing with the cable "open access" issue are likely to draw the most attention. The fight for access to high-speed cable networks has rallied policymakers from the city council in Portland, Oregon, all the way to the halls of Congress.

ISPs, led by America Online and GTE, have argued that they should have direct access to cable Internet subscribers, in the same way they can directly offer service to dial-up Internet users. Cable companies like AT&T require that their high-speed Internet customers use an affiliated ISP, such as Excite@Home.

A growing list of local city councils are considering open access regulations. Following a recent federal court decision, Portland was given the right to force AT&T to open its cable networks as a condition on the transfer of a cable license from Tele-Communications Incorporated. AT&T has since appealed the ruling.

Washington policymakers have been split on the issue. Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard has said that a myriad of local policies would lead to "chaos," but has also declined several times to rule on the issue of open access.

One pair of bills mandating open access has already been introduced in the House by legislators representing AOL's home state of Virginia. A hearing on those bills will be held tomorrow.

Other powerful lawmakers, however, have said they don't want to see any legislation on the issue yet.

"What I would hope would happen is that broadband access would be agreed to by those controlling it, so others would be allowed in on reasonable terms," said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over the issue, at a recent press conference. "But I would like to see this kind of policy adopted by the companies themselves."

Many Washington observers predict that none of these telecommunications bills will succeed this year, however. Tauzin's bill and others are essentially paving the way for similar efforts, but in future sessions. Backers of open access are increasingly focused on the local government battles, while proponents of lifting regulation on the telephone companies are ready to fight a long battle.

The Tauzin bill, with its influential sponsors, will nevertheless be the source of heavy lobbying through this year.

"We think Internet issues are going to gain momentum," said Susan Molinari, the former GOP lawmaker who now is co-director of iAdvance, a Baby Bell-backed lobbying group that supports the Tauzin bill. "You don't know what kind of pressure constituents will wind up putting on their legislators this year."