Senator Unveils Bill to Aid SBC, Other Telcos

Legislation aiding telephone companies in their efforts to provide video and other high-speed data services was proposed on Wednesday by Sen. John Ensign, who claimed his goal is to boost competition.

Ensign, a Nevada Republican and chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on technology, innovation and competitiveness, called his

72-page bill a starting point as Congress considers overhauling the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which aimed to promote competition in voice services.

"Changes in technology necessitate that we update these rules if America is going to be competitive in the face of global competition," he told reporters.

Cable and telephone companies are battling to expand their profits by signing up as many customers as possible for a suite of communications and entertainment services but the Bells have complained they are at a disadvantage.

Ensign pointed out that the United States has slipped to as low as

16th in the rankings for deploying high-speed Internet service, called broadband. He also said consumers are hungry for more choice in communications and entertainment.

Under the bill, companies that want to offer video services would no longer have to get permission from local or state officials, a boon to companies like Verizon Communications and SBC Communications Inc. which are rolling out video.

The measure would also eliminate in 2011 requirements that the four big local telephone companies, known as the Baby Bells and including Verizon and SBC, resell their phone service to other competitors at regulated rates or make parts of their existing copper networks available to competitors.

The Bells argue they must abide by laws for traditional phone service, slowing the deployment of broadband services, and that they could be required to obtain permission from thousands of local authorities to offer video.

"This will provide much needed clarity as SBC invests in next-generation broadband services," said Tim McKone, senior vice president for federal relations at SBC, the No. 2 U.S. telephone carrier.

Ensign said he would now begin seeking the support of other lawmakers for his measure, but gave no timetable for moving the legislation forward. Analysts have said the chances of passing a bill this year were slim.

However, not all were quick to embrace the bill. Sen. John Kerry, a senior Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee from Massachusetts, said that while he had not read the entire bill, he had some concerns.

"It does conflict with a few of the views I espouse," he told reporters, without elaborating.

Ensign's measure would prevent companies from limiting where consumers surf on the Internet as well as ensure Internet phone service cannot be blocked by broadband providers.

Local and state authorities would still be able to collect up to 5 percent of gross revenue from pay television services and local governments could continue managing rights of ways.

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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