RealTime IT News

Committee Approves Tauzin-Dingell Broadband Bill

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce voted in favor of the Tauzin-Dingell Broadband Bill, 33-24, in a late-night session Wednesday.

Although statistically a win for Billy Tauzin (R-LA), committee chairman and John Dingell (D-MI), the two sponsors of the bill, a key amendment struck down in a tie vote at the session showed that support for the bill is going to be an uphill affair.

Jonathan Askin, general counsel for the Association for Local Telecommunications Services, said the 33-24 passage wasn't the big victory Tauzin and Dingell were expecting.

"That's hardly a resounding endorsement of the bill," Askin said. "Half the committee sent an incredibly strong signal that there are major problems with the legislation."

"The Internet Freedom and Broadband Bill," H.R. 1542, has been decried by many in the industry as an escape clause from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) like Verizon Communications and BellSouth.

The bill calls for the end of Federal Communication Commission policies, like unbundling their local loop and opening remote terminals, which telephone companies say is preventing them from deploying high-speed Internet access nationwide.

Askin said a pivotal amendment proposed in favor of Internet service providers and the competitive telephone companies, called competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs), nearly ended the Tauzin-Dingell Bill.

The amendment, Askin said, would reinstate the FCC's rules in support of the 1996 Telecom Act, which was what the Tauzin-Dingell was trying to eradicate in the first place.

"Tauzin and Dingell both said that if you vote for this amendment, you might as well vote against the bill," Askin said. "Here you have the chairman of the committee and the ranking member of the committee, the bill sponsors, both giving wholehearted endorsement of the legislation. The vote was 27-27."

He said the vote was actually 27-19, in favor of the amendment, until eight late arrivals tied up the vote, effectively striking down the amendment.

According to H. Russell Frisby, Jr., president of CompTel, an organization representing competitive telecom companies, committee members were able to put politics aside and look at the issues.

"The way it was put to the committee, they only had two choices," Frisby said. "It was between a competitive wireline world or a situation where you had only two competitors -- the local phone monopoly and the local cable monopoly. Half of that committee said no."

"What that means is that this bill is going to have problems in the House," Frisby continued, "and why the bill is dead on arrival in the Senate."

Ken Johnson, spokesperson for the committee, said Frisby's remarks couldn't be further from the truth.

"The vote was a lot closer then we expected," Johnson said. "But it was an important victory for us and brings us another step closer to deregulation of the industry.

The close vote, Johnson said, "tells us that we can't take anything for granted. Last year, we had 250 sponsors on the bill. It just shows that the CLECs did their homework and the telephone companies didn't."

House leadership hasn't announced where the Tauzin-Dingell Bill will go next.

There are two likely options. It may either go to the House Judiciary Committee, which has said it wants to review the bill for anti-trust and consumer protection reasons, or end up on the full House floor for approval.

Johnson said that even if the judiciary committee is given the bill for review, they will only be able to review parts of the bill, not the whole thing, making it difficult to stop the bill.

"We hope to have the bill out (to the Senate) before the August recess," Johnson said.

Bonnie Van Fleet, a spokesperson for CompTel, said that while the passage of the bill is a defeat for the public consumer, the fact the amendment ended in a tie is a good sign.

"What this says is that the bill was not a mandate," Van Fleet said. She said the organization will continue to work to protect competition in the industry.