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FCC Delays Controversial Bell Vote

An apparent internal power struggle among the five members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has led FCC Chairman Michael Powell to delay this week's highly anticipated ruling on whether the regional Bell companies must continue to lease some or all of their lines to competitors. In a brief, two paragraph statement issued Monday night, the agency said the vote has been rescheduled for Feb. 20.

The delay seems to indicate Powell's inability to win a majority vote for his plan to free the Bells from their current legal obligations under the 1996 Telecommunications Act. A rival proposal by Commissioner Kevin Martin, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush and a former FCC staff member, that would give the states the power to make the deregulatory decisions about the Bells and their competitors has gained the support of the two Democrats, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, on the Commission.

Martin's plan also requires the Bells to continue to provide to their rivals access to high-speed lines. Powell's plan would exempt the Bells from that requirement.

If Martin's proposal wins, it would deal a major defeat to Powell and the regional Bells.

At the heart of the issue is whether the Bells have met their obligations to remove barriers to entry into the local voice market and did the Telecommunications Act anticipate that the Bells would have to share their lines for advanced voice and data services when it was written six years ago.

The Bells argue the regulations have put them at a competitive disadvantage with cable companies that are not required to share their lines with rivals. The Bells contend the current rules have stymied investment in new fiber networks and have given the cable companies an unfair advantage in rolling our broadband service. Cable companies currently control almost 70 percent of the U.S. broadband market.

Bell competitors counter that rolling back the rules would effectively give the Bells a monopoly over high-speed broadband services delivered over telephone lines.