Reining In the Bells

THE Clinton administration, Congress, the seven so-called Baby Bell companies, and long-distance telephone carriers agree on one thing: They want Congress to come quickly to final agreement on legislation to deregulate the country's telecommunications markets.

They were hoping for a bill before Congress leaves for the holidays. That looks unlikely, primarily because they can't agree on the legislation's wording.

A delayed bill is better than a bad one. Long-distance carriers should continue to push for acceptable terms, and the White House should reiterate its position that it won't sign legislation that might exacerbate unfair monopolies in the telephone market.

Last summer, the House and Senate each passed bills setting easy terms for the Bell companies - which currently control 98 percent of local revenues in their regions - to enter the $70 billion long-distance market. AT&T, Sprint, MCI, and some smaller long-distance carriers understandably cried foul. Now lawmakers are discussing new language that would require the Bells to face at least some competition in their local markets before going after long-distance service.

The language is crucial. Bell companies may well exploit vague wording to keep competitors at bay. As with any monopoly, that could mean higher prices for consumers. One overly vague proposal now on the table would require regional Bells to face ''viable competition'' in business and local service that is available to a ''meaningful number of customers within a state.'' How many is ''meaningful'' is anyone's guess.

There are proposals that are fairer - and more specific. Some long-distance carriers suggest that a Bell company be permitted to provide long-distance service once local phone service from a competitor is available to 50 percent of the homes in a given area and is bought by at least 15 percent of those homes. Meanwhile, 35 senators (including nine Republicans) are urging that the bill include a provision requiring Bells to obtain Justice Department and FCC approval before being able to provide long-distance service.

The purpose of rewriting telecommunications laws is to unleash competition among the phone, cable, and broadcast industries. It would be a shame if the overhaul slips into 1996, when lawmakers' attention will be on other matters. It would be even more troubling, however, if local telephone companies were allowed to sidestep real competition.

Local phone companies could exploit a vague bill.

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