WASHINGTON – The House passed sweeping legislation Wednesday to let four Bell telephone giants sell Internet access nationwide and to relieve them of state and federal regulation.
The bill would remove requirements in the 1996 Telecommunications Act that the regional Bell companies first open their networks to competitors before being allowed to offer high-speed Internet service nationwide.
Passed by the House on a 273-157 vote, the bill's fate remains uncertain in the Senate. Among its opponents there are Sens. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and John McCain of Arizona, the chairman and senior Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee.
Last-ditch efforts by opponents in the House to scuttle a compromise measure and send the bill to the Senate in a virtually unpassable state failed in a series of procedural moves.
Relatively few of the nation's Internet users subscribe to high-speed Internet, although the majority of the nation can buy at least one form of it. Cable companies have about twice as many customers as the Bells for broadband connections.
These connections, dozens of times faster than the standard telephone dial-up that most people use, make it possible for consumers to download huge data files quickly or watch video on their computers.
"It's about making sure the Internet is free from the bureaucrats who might regulate it to death," said the legislation's co-author, Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.
Current law requires that the telephone giants prove they're letting competitors use their Internet facilities in order to get the privilege of selling service nationwide. The House bill would lift that requirement for data service.
Other portions of the bill direct the Bells to offer the high-speed service nationwide, particularly in rural and underserved areas. It would also increase the fines the Federal Communications Commission can levy on telephone companies if they break the law.
But opponents in Congress, as well as state regulators and consumer groups, say the bill would leave the states powerless to protect consumers.
"Where I'm from, every time Congress dismantles a regulatory scheme and hands it over to the monopolies my constituents take it on the chin," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.
As House members scrambled to keep the bill alive, Hollings made clear his opposition in the Senate.
"Tauzin-Dingell is a false start," he said. "I'm trying to break up the monopolies. Tauzin-Dingell is trying to extend the monopolies."
The fight has been awash in money since the bill was first introduced during the last Congress.
According to the Center for Responsible Politics, opponents such as AT&T, Sprint and Worldcom have contributed a total of $12.6 million to congressional campaigns since 1999.
The Bells -- Qwest, BellSouth, SBC Communications and Verizon -- have spent about $19.4 million in contributions over the same period.
The two sides have accused each other of stifling the Internet economy and have spent more than $10 million on newspaper, radio, television and online pitches.
The bill is H.R. 1542.