Hijacking the I-Way - What It Will Cost You

How a 'stealth' telecom bill slid through Congress

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THE most important social legislation of the session is receiving so little public attention as it moves through the congressional mill that it's being called the ''stealth bill.'' The Telecommunications Act of 1995 is so sweeping that every American who owns a television set or radio, reads a newspaper, uses cable, a telephone, or a computer will be affected.

The bill will influence what we'll pay for our telephone facilities, as our demands for telephone lines to access on-line computer services expands. It could touch off a new surge in our cable rates, which federal regulators only recently brought under control. The bill will shift the balance of power from local TV stations to their networks, further dim-inishing the range of local programming we receive; eliminate smaller cable systems that serve much of the nation; and concentrate the range of program choices and editorial voices in the hands of even fewer producers and distributors.

There's a struggle of titans between competing telephone interests over key provisions of the bill. There have been extraordinary departures from the democratic process. Perhaps because they have a direct stake, the networks' news reports give it virtually no heed. The mainstream press quarantines the story to the business pages.

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The bill rewrites the core body of law, dating back to 1934, that regulates the communications industry. The so-called ''reforms'' will loosen the rules under which the $200-billion-a-year industry that owns America's long-distance and regional phone companies, cable television systems, many newspapers, and radio-television enterprises will battle for dominion in the new digital order.

The industry began spreading huge amounts of money among the congressional campaigns before the last election - nearly $7 million in the 1993-94 season alone. With the start of the new session, the philanthropic tilt has moved from the Democrats to the Republicans. Special favors have been reserved for members of the House and Senate Commerce committees, which have jurisdiction.

In a highly irregular stretch of the democratic process, GOP members of the Senate and House Commerce Committees consulted directly, behind closed doors, with senior industry leaders after barring Democratic members. Company lobbyists were permitted to write large sections of the legislation. One of them, Peggy Binzel, is credited with the bill's marked pro-network tilt. She is vice president for government relations of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns the Fox network.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed its version of the bill in June. The House was scheduled to debate its far more generous version this week.

After the House Commerce Committee had voted overwhelmingly to report it out, the regional Bell companies complained to Speaker Newt Gingrich about certain provisions governing their entry into the long-distance business.

According to Capitol Hill sources, Mr. Gingrich asked committee leaders to make substantial changes. They were quietly inserted in the bill without formal resubmission to members.

In an angry letter to Gingrich, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska asked ''how this practice squares with your long-stated desire to change the way government does business.'' The letter received little attention.

Aside from the damage it's wreaked on the democratic process, the bill's most serious flaw is its double standard. It promotes competition in telephone services among established mega-media interests, which experts say will produce lower rates for consumers of telephone services. But the provisions all but choke off competition in television and radio - bad news for citizen-consumers who seek a multiplicity of voices on the air and on cable. It dangerously limits ownership of the stations and cable systems to those enterprises with the ready cash to snap them up - notably, the phone companies, established media conglomerates, and the networks.

There are goodies for the cable business, too, where caps on cable rates are to be swept away, with systems able to charge whatever the market will bear. Purported safeguards are without teeth.

President Clinton has indicated he may veto the bill as it stands. Meantime, there should be no question about the democratic leanings of the Congress - of, by, and for the people. The people, in this case, are those who own and operate telecommunications conglomerates.

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