POLITICS - not technology - has held up the building of the information superhighway. Now, industry and politicians are finding enough common ground to push through dramatic changes in America's 60-year-old communications law.
The result could be a breakthrough for consumers. It would eliminate the final two monopolies in information industries: local telephone service and cable television. Consumers could have their local telephone company provide TV programming. Or their local cable television company could hook up their phone.
That's already possible technologically. Now Congress is working to lift restrictions that are holding things up. This movement got a major boost this week when Vice President Al Gore Jr. voiced the administration's intent to get involved.
``The administration will support removal, over time, under appropriate conditions, of judicial and legislative restrictions on all types of telecommunications companies: cable, telephone, utilities, TV, and satellite,'' he told the National Press Club on Tuesday. ``We will do it by avoiding both extremes: regulation for regulation's sake and the blind adherence to the dead hand of a free-market economist.''
Mr. Gore said he would provide specifics on Jan. 11 at a speech in Los Angeles.
The White House's intervention could help push legislation through next year. ``The fact that this is a priority for the administration makes this bill a lot easier to move through the committee and the House,'' says one well-placed House aide.
``I think there is some general common ground that has emerged as a result of people like Al Gore raising the `information superhighway' as one of the defining economic and technological issues,'' adds Paul Karoff, an AT&T spokesman. ``But, clearly, [there's] a lot to be worked out.''
The administration's push comes on top of legislative efforts now under way. In the House, Reps. John Dingell (D) of Michigan and Jack Brooks (D) of Texas have introduced a bill that would lift restrictions on regional Bell telephone firms manufacturing equipment and offering information services. In a separate measure, Reps. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts and Jack Fields (R) of Texas would offer a kind of quid pro quo. Their bill would give regional Bells a green light to move into TV programming while cable TV could start offering local telephone service - something each industry wants to do.
Gore described both bills as ``major steps forward,'' but he stopped short of endorsing them. In the Senate, Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii and John Danforth (R) of Missouri have sponsored a bill to allow cable TV and the Bells to get into each others' businesses. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina is working on a bill to allow Bell companies into manufacturing and, perhaps, other industries.
Managing the transition will be a delicate balancing act between the dynamism of the private sector's technology and concerns about public privacy and access.
Telephone and cable industries are eager to expand because profits from their core businesses are leveling off. Long-distance companies, which have fought hard to keep regional Bells out of long distance, are keenly interested in seeing competition in local phone service because it would reduce the hefty access fees they pay.
But consumer groups and rural interests are wary. They're concerned that inner-city poor and rural residents won't be able to afford their services if they are charged more closely to their costs. Gore has promised to take into account these concerns about access.
``The White House has to get in there and play a very active role in developing this legislation,'' says Paris Burstyn, vice president of telecommunications research at Business Research Group. ``If [Gore] is given the opportunity to foster this stuff, he may, in fact, be able to pull it off.''
Indeed, optimism about a deal is growing. ``Whether it's a blue bicycle or a red bicycle, a five-speed, or a 10-speed - those are important questions. But, at the end of the day, we're going to get a bicycle'' for Christmas, the House aide says.