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Telecom law protested

As the anniversary of telecom deregulation approaches, consumer groups are questioning the benefits of the landmark law.

Saturday makes one year since telecommunications deregulation, and consumer advocates are rising up to question its promised benefits.

Today, NetAction and the Center for Educational Priorities said they would stage a month-long protest on the Internet to ask why regulators and lawmakers "have failed to deliver" on the benefits that were promised to consumers when President Clinton signed the bill into law Feburary 8 of last year.

On their Web site, the two groups are urging consumers to contact the White House, the Federal Communications Commission, and members of Congress to express their concerns.

Although the Telecommunications Act was supposed to have created a cornucopia of technological innovations, all it's generated so far is megamergers and censorship, said Audrie Krause, executive director of NetAction.

Brian Burke, executive director of the Center for Educational Activities, agreed. "Many of the issues were not fully debated or discussed," he said, adding that the proposed consolidation among telephone companies should be scrutinized more closely by antitrust regulators.

Since the bill was enacted, a spate of mergers have taken place, such as Bell Atlantic's proposed buyout of Nynex and SBC Communications' planned acquisition of Pacific Bell. The consumer groups worry that the mergers will lead to layoffs and higher prices, something vehemently denied by the companies.

The Baby Bells say the mergers will make the companies financially strong enough to take on long distance giants such as AT&T, MCI, and Sprint, as well as cable-television heavyweights such as Tele-Communications Incorporated and Time Warner. They all want to provide "one-stop" shopping for telecommunications services in phone, video, and Internet access.

The telephone carriers also insist that deregulation will ultimately will lead to lower prices, just as airline deregulation has led to deeply discounted fares.

But the consumer groups are dubious and, as reasons for their concerns, point to recent rate hikes by long distance carriers and cable TV companies.

The groups also are concerned about Net censorship stemming from the act. The Communications Decency Act, which was enacted as part of the telecommunications legislation in a political compromise, makes it a crime to post "indecent" material over the Net.

The American Civil Liberties Union and 50 other organizations have filed legal challenges to the CDA. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case next month and issue a ruling by summer.