RealTime IT News

Last-minute Wranglings on Tauzin-Dingell

As lawmakers get set to vote the latest iteration of the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act Wednesday, both sides -- Baby Bells who support it and competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) who are opposed to it -- are cranking up the rhethoric while politicians take up a last-minute amendment to the bill.

CLECs have long decried the heavy lobbyist spending habits of the four incumbent Baby Bells -- also known as incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) -- which fight year after year for Congress to reconsider the measure, also known as the Tauzin-Dingell bill in light of its sponsors, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-LA) and Rep. John Dingell (D-MI).

Last year, the bill squeaked through the Tauzin-controlled House Committee on Energy and Commerce, but has been tabled until this week.

Now it looks likely the bill will pass the House of Representatives with the help of an 11th hour amendment, which according to one Bell critic, muddles the issue of competitive access.

According to the amendment, it "guarantees" competitive access to all fiber and copper wire on the Bell's network, though the amendment hides away wording that restricts competitive access to remote terminals.

Remote terminals are the linchpin to any rural or underserved broadband deployment, since it extends the physical limitations of digital subscriber line (DSL) technology beyond the 15,000 feet reach of central offices. Remote terminals, the little green boxes found in every neighborhood, are much more prevalent than central offices.

Sue Ashdown, executive director of the American Internet Service Provider (ISP) Association, hopes House representatives are smart enough to look at a last-minute amendment with a fair bit of skepticism.

"If it's really supposed to solve all the problems the competitors have with the bill, why is Mr. Tauzin so reluctant to bring it out into the light of day and have a hearing to examine it?" she said. "Flourishing something like that from your vest pocket the day of the vote and expecting Congress to thoroughly understand it and then vote on it, when the whole bill is so convoluted to begin with, is laughable."

If they pass the legislation because of the amendment, Ashdown added, "it will only go to show that they love a good shell game, and learned nothing from Enron."

The top independent digital subscriber line (DSL) provider in the U.S., rejuvenated Covad Communications, predicts the bill will not make it through the House, however.

Dhruv Khanna, Covad executive vice president and general counsel, said the bill is a dead end for competition that keeps DSL pricing down and choices available for consumers.

"The House vote is the end of the line for the phone companies because the highly contentious bill itself is almost certainly doomed," he said. "More importantly, it is a bad bill for consumers. It simply limits consumer choice, and Covad calls on all policy makers to recognize the phone companies' efforts for what they are: efforts by four companies to re-monopolize the broadband market to the detriment of consumers, and to the benefit of themselves."

Even if the legislation passes muster in the House, the bill has a powerful foe in the form of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC), Senate Commerce Committee chair, who has vowed to kill the bill if it ever gets to the Senate.

Jim Geiger, chief executive officer of Atlanta-based CLEC Cbeyond Communications, said the Bells keep bringing it back because the legislation, if passed, would put an end to competitive access provided by the Telco Act of 1996.

"It has been only six years since this groundbreaking legislation was passed and in that time, competitive providers who offer innovative and cost-effective services have taken nearly 10% market share away from the Bell companies," he said. "This bill, if passed, will bring the delivery of competitive local phone service to a screeching halt, ultimately raise the cost of local telephone service and further slow down the delivery of broadband access to these businesses."

"And that would be sad indeed," he concluded.