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A step backward for open competition?

RBOC data relief gains support in Congress

Telephony Magazine 2/28/00

Election-minded politicians promoting "hands off the Net" policies and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 are on a collision course on the subject of high-speed data services.

Several congressional bills introduced last year would remove prohibitions on RBOC provisioning of interLATA data services, and at least one of them appears to be gaining support in Congress.

Competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs), meanwhile, are mustering forces to stop what they see as a setback in the fight to open local telephone monopolies to competition.

Most of these so-called data relief bills, some of which have been initiated by the RBOC lobbying efforts, argue that Internet access services are inherently interstate and international and therefore should not be regulated by the states. They also argue that the FCC’s regulatory policies are impeding the widespread availability of advanced telecommunications services by lumping data services in with long-distance voice services.

"The legislation gets rid of the artificial interLATA distinctions to recognize how people really use data services," said Ed Young, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for Bell Atlantic. Internet services are more equivalent to wireless, which are not regulated in terms of LATA boundaries, he said.

But those in opposition to data relief, including some members of Congress, believe that the passage of these bills would represent a drastic departure from the Telecom Act and would accomplish little in the way of speeding up deployment of broadband services such as DSL.

"We don’t need to change the law. In 1996 we passed all the broadband legislation we would ever need," said Colin Crowell, a telecommunications policy analyst for Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., referring to the Telecom Act. Markey is the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee on telecommunications, trade and consumer protection.

Of the five bills introduced in 1999, the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act of 1999 (H.R. 2420) appears to have the largest groundswell of support. About 160 House members are backing the measure, which was introduced in July 1999 and sponsored by Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., and Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich. Two-hundred eighteen members constitute a House majority.

The bill would roll back portions of Section 251 of the Telecom Act, which governs interconnection agreements and unbundling requirements, and give RBOCs in-region long-distance data relief. H.R. 2420 would also prohibit the FCC from requiring incumbents to provide unbundled access to network elements used in the provisioning of high-speed data and prevent the FCC and the states from regulating resale rates for high-speed data services.

Bell Atlantic and other RBOCs argue that the legislation would accelerate the rollout of broadband services to the disenfranchised; assure ISPs and CLECs more interconnection options, especially with regard to Internet backbones; and give consumers and businesses a greater choice of service providers.

The bill would put an end to the "secret peering arrangements" of major Internet backbone operators such as AT&T and MCI WorldCom/Sprint, which make it difficult for small ISPs in certain states to establish Internet access points, Young said. "We need stronger companies to preserve others’ options for interconnection."

But opponents are skeptical of the RBOCs’ arguments that frame the legislative intentions as altruistic. Paula Ford, senior counsel for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications, said that the Telecom Act has not been the cause of the slow rollout of DSL products by the RBOCs. Indeed, "we would argue that open competition is driving the deployment of broadband," she added.