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Local telcos hire political heavyweights

A group of local telephone companies hires a pair of political heavyweights to head a lobbying group to focus on Internet and broadband issues in Washington.

A group of local telephone companies has hired a pair of political heavyweights to head a lobbying group to focus on Internet and broadband issues in Washington.

The group, which is as yet unnamed, hired former White House press secretary Mike McCurry and former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-New York) as co-chairs. A handful of computer companies and ISPs will also be involved in the group, sources said.

Bell Atlantic and SBC Communications both said they were members of the group, though several other Baby Bells contacted said they had not yet joined. The companies' chief trade organization, the United States Telephone Association, said it was still reviewing the possibility of group membership.

Several lobbying groups have cropped up in the past year, as the push for broadband has become the rallying call in the telecommunications industry. Local telcos are looking to loosen regulations that have so far kept them from truly jumping into broadband, while Internet service providers are waging their own war for access to high-speed cable networks.

The organization's final membership is still being "pulled together," according to McCurry's assistant. The focus of the group is also evolving as it adds members, and would likely wind up being "broader than broadband," she added.

Joining up
The most prominent telecommunications lobbying group has been the OpenNet coalition, led by America Online, MindSpring Enterprises, and US West. The coalition is pressing Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to give ISPs access to cable networks like those owned by AT&T.

Another consumer advocate-led group, dubbed No Gatekeepers, also is focusing on the cable "open access" issue.

The new local telephone company-led group will focus on reducing federal regulation over the telcos' rollout of advanced services, such as high-speed digital subscriber lines (DSL).

Dominant local telephone companies are subject to restrictions on how far they can carry data traffic, and are required to resell parts of their networks to competitors. The Baby Bells have argued in Congress and at the FCC that these rules have hampered the rollout of high-speed Internet services.

Several bills have been introduced this year that would relax restrictions on the local telephone companies high-speed Internet services, including one by Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Arizona). These bills will likely be the focus of the McCurry-Molinari group's initial lobbying thrust, sources said.

McCurry joined consulting firm Public Strategies Group, which has close ties to SBC Communications, shortly after leaving the White House. Molinari represented New York in Congress between 1990 and 1997, and was elected Republican Conference vice-chair twice.

McCurry's assistant said the group would probably be launched officially in the next few weeks.