- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Several senators yesterday said they opposed a controversial measure to change the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in order to help the Bell telephone companies.

Their opposition makes it unlikely the bill will make it through the Senate.

"It's the biggest bunch of nonsense I've ever heard," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat and the new chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

"The fact is that Congress should not help the Bells extend their monopolies," he said at a Senate hearing yesterday on local phone competition.

The Bells Verizon Communications Inc., BellSouth Corp., SBC Communications Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc. are lobbying in favor of the bill cos-ponsored by Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, and Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat. The measure would let the Bells stop leasing lines and equipment to competitors and carry data across long distances.

The 1996 telecommunications law gave the Bells the right to expand into long-distance calling service, but only after opening their local markets to competition. Since most Internet traffic travels beyond local calling areas, the 1996 law also keeps the Bells from marketing high-speed Internet service before opening local calling markets to competitors.

Mr. Hollings and other powerful lawmakers said the 1996 law needs more enforcement, not changes.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said stricter enforcement of the telecommunications act could reduce local-calling rates by increasing the number of phone companies in a calling area.

"Unfortunately, we have not seen the lower prices promised by the telecommunications act. We have consistently seen prices rise since the act's passage," Mr. McCain said.

Local phone prices have increased 12 percent since 1996, he said.

The Bell companies blamed raising prices on regulations that they said make marketing local-calling service unattractive to competitors.

"At no time have we been more regulated than today. We are as far away from deregulation as you can possibly imagine," BellSouth Executive Vice President Margaret H. Greene told lawmakers.

Bell rivals called on lawmakers to boost the fines levied against the Baby Bells for violating the telecommunications act to help preserve competition.

A Federal Communications Commission report last December concluded that competitive local-exchange carriers had just an 8 percent share of local phone customers.

"To ensure that the promise of the telecom act is fulfilled, Congress should significantly increase the penalties for violations to a maximum penalty of 1 percent of a company's quarterly revenue," said Royce J. Holland, chairman and chief executive of Dallas-based Allegiance Telecom Inc., a competitive local-exchange carrier.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved the Tauzin-Dingell bill last month, but the Judiciary Committee rejected it last week.

AT&T; Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive C. Michael Armstrong, an opponent of the Tauzin-Dingell measure, told reporters after testifying before lawmakers he believes the bill has no chance of earning Senate approval.

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