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HOUSE VOTES TO BREAK UP MONOPOLIES

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The House of Representatives approved a bill Friday that would radically rewrite the nation's communications laws for the first time in more than six decades.

In a frenetic session before breaking for a monthlong recess, House members voted 305-117 for vastly reduced regulations on everything from cable television to local and long-distance telephone services.The bill would give local phone companies - the so-called Baby Bells - something they have been seeking for years: the right to enter the long-distance market.

But in a setback to the television networks, House Democrats curbed some of the legislation's strongest elements of deregulation, winning key amendments to limit media ownership and to mandate that all new television sets include technology that would allow parents to block out programs with violence or sexual content.

But consumer advocates said the amendments hardly made the bill consumer-friendly. They predicted that cable and telephone rates would increase as big communications conglomerates were allowed to become even bigger.

"Congress has reached deep into consumers' pockets, opened their wallets and taken out their money," said Bradley Stillman, director of telecommunications policy at the Consumer Federation of America.

Still, the bill's Republican backers exulted in their victory.

"With this bill, we will break up two monopolies: local telephone companies and cable companies," said Thomas J. Bliley Jr., the Virginia Republican who is the chief sponsor of the legislation.

Republican leaders said the wide margin of victory Friday, and the Senate's 81-to-18 vote in June approving a similar measure, guaranteed that they could override a threatened veto from President Clinton, who sides with the consumer advocates. To override a veto, both houses must muster a two-thirds majority.

But while the House Republicans marshaled a seemingly veto-proof advantage, both Edward Markey, D-Mass., who sponsored the amendments on media ownership and technology to block violent programming, and White House officials insisted that they had already corralled about a dozen votes from Democrats who voted for the bill but said they would support a presidential veto.

Markey said that the back-to-back ABCand CBS deals announced earlier this week prompted both Democrats and Republicans to vote for stricter ownership limits.

"The members are now much more aware of what could happen if they don't pay attention," Markey said. A third Markey amendment, which would have limited cable rate increases, did not pass.

In approving the so-called V- chip that would be included in new television sets and allow parents to block programming, the House followed the lead of the Senate.

But the House left room for broadcasters to develop an alternative blocking technology. Whatever the technology used, it would be up to the broadcasting and cable industries to develop a rating system.

The debate over the V-chip capped an exhausting and emotional session in which the lawmakers veered from highly arcane discussions of local and long-distance telephone competition to an impassioned debate on how to protect children from violent and sexual programming.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., an ardent proponent of the V-chip, broke down in tears after it passed. Before the vote, Burton had described witnessing domestic violence in his childhood - behavior that he said was encouraged by the violent images on television.

Although the media and programming issues dominated the House debate, the telecommunications bill will have its biggest economic impact on the telephone industry, where local and long-distance companies will now be allowed to compete head-on.

The long-distance carriers were dealt a significant setback yesterday when the House leaders amended the bill to make it easier for the regional Bell companies to offer long-distance service.

In the original bill, the Bell companies would have had to meet a rigorous checklist of items to gain entry into long distance. Most important, they would have had to open their local markets to competitors and demonstrate that those competitors were offering service "comparable in price, features and scope."

Now, though, the Bell companies can gain entry into long distance merely by demonstrating that there are competitors in their local markets who offer both business and residential service.

Thomas J. Tauke, the chief lobbyist for Nynex Corp., said that if the measure approved Friday, or one like it, was enacted, his company would probably be the first Bell company to move into long distance.

He said that process would take 12 to 18 months. Nynex already has deals with cable companies and so-called competitive access providers giving them access to its local telephone network.

Stillman, of the Consumer Federation of America, estimated that consumers would pay an average of $10 a month more for local phone service in the year 2000 because the Bells would use their monopoly power in local markets to impede new competitors.

Daniel Reingold, a telecommunications analyst at Merrill Lynch, agreed that local rates would increase. But he said that was because state governments from New York to California had already been forcing the Baby Bells to open their markets to competition.