Chief Author of Telecommunications Bill Explains Why and How It Was Done

YOUR television may never be the same. But then again, neither will your telephone or your radio or even your computer.

This week President Clinton is expected to sign a major overhaul of the laws that regulate American telecommunications. While the topic makes many people's eyes glaze over, the bill will have a far-reaching impact on almost every American.

Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina is widely credited with crafting the original Senate bill and shepherding it through the final delicate, difficult compromise that won overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate last Thursday.

In a phone interview, Senator Hollings explained why the bill was needed and what it will mean to consumers.

Why is this bill necessary?

Because of the total breakdown of telecommunications policy. We had, in a sense, no national policy because the 1934 act had become outdated long since: It was enacted 62 years ago, before television, cellular, and satellite. It was a long road, but worth it.

It took four years of legislative wrangling to get this far. What made putting the bill together so challenging?

You've got to realize the entities involved. You've got not only the long-distance and regional [telephone] companies, but you've also got the broadcasters, cable TV wanting to move into some of the local telephone exchanges. And the direct-broadcast satellite people, and newspapers, public utilities, the pay phones, and the minority groups. And everybody wanted to be protected: the schools and libraries, the retailers of equipment, the privacy groups, the manufacturers, and the rural telephone people.

And I think it ought to be emphasized that anyone in telecommunications of a substantial nature could have blocked the bill.

In a nutshell, what does the bill do?

This bill more or less tears down the Berlin Wall in telecommunications in a deliberate fashion. When I say ''deliberate,'' we wanted to make certain we didn't make the mistakes that we did with airline deregulation. [We didn't want] the services to be diminished or the costs to go up. On the contrary: We had to protect quality, universal service.

Some consumer groups worry the bill may cause some telephone rates to go up.

Yes, some of the costs are bound to go up temporarily.... [But] I think the average person ought to know that costs [eventually] will be going down, and alternatives and options will become very, very competitive.

Do you expect a period of confusion similar to the confusion after the breakup of AT&T in 1984? Will there be lots of new phone companies calling at dinner time to pitch their services?

We've got provisions against that kind of nuisance calling.... But, yes, there will be tremendous competition, particularly in the business area.

When cable TV was deregulated in 1984, prices skyrocketed. After a public outcry, Congress reregulated cable in 1992. Within three years, this bill will again deregulate all cable services, except the basic-tier ones. What's to keep cable rates from skyrocketing again?

We hope the competition [from direct-broadcast satellite TV and other services] will bring those rates down....

Now [the cable companies] could play games as to what's in that basic tier, and the [Federal Communications Commission] has to watch that. That's going to be one mammoth task for the FCC.

Why has this also been touted as a major jobs bill?

This will open the gates to all of this high-tech, and there's going to be tremendous investment in it. There's no question about that.

One big reason is that the [telephone] companies can invest in the United States - in their own subsidiaries - for their own manufacture of equipment and everything else of that kind. They've been forced overseas [by restrictions in the court order that broke up AT&T], and now they'll come home.

What was the most difficult aspect of getting this bill passed?

Keeping my mouth shut. I never went on a weekend TV show in the last two years. I was invited, but there's not enough time to try to intelligently answer some questions. And they want conflict in these weekend TV shows, they didn't want the accomplishments. I knew I'd say something, and somebody else would say, ''Oh, no, we don't want to do that!'' and get all their lawyers up against this or against that. I just stayed off those things and kept everybody working and made sure it was bipartisan. They couldn't object to the blooming thing.

How do you feel now that it's over?

It's wonderful, really wonderful. I proved it could be done, and the only way to get things done is in a bipartisan nature. And that goes to a fundamental and totally misunderstood concept. In fact, you have a whole political party organized on the premise that it's sin to compromise. But with checks and balances, we in the Congress can't do without the president, and the president can't do without us, and the House can't do without the Senate. It's a triangle, and we've got to get together. We were sent here to make the government work, not to close it down and get headlines. C'mon! This bill was the only thing really done of any nature whatsoever in 1995.

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