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.

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