After four years of struggle and gridlock, Congress rewrote the nation's communications laws Thursday, passing a bill that would transform television, telephones and the emerging frontiers of computer networks.
Voting within two hours of each other, both the House and Senate approved a final version of a bill that is broadly intended to promote a free-for-all rivalry between local telephone companies, long-distance carriers, cable television operators and even electric utilities.The House approved the bill first, by a vote of 414-16; the Senate's vote was 91-5. The bill now moves directly to President Clinton, who strongly supports it and has said he will sign it.
"Today, we have broken up two of the biggest government monopolies left: the monopolies in local telephone service and in cable television," said the bill's primary author in the House, Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr., R-Va., the chairman of the Commerce Committee.
"For the first time ever, Americans will be given choices. Besides lower rates and better service, the result will be innovative new products and services that will create thousands of new American jobs."
Whether or not the bill lives up to the superlatives heaped on it Thursday by its supporters, few dispute the sweeping impact of the new legislation, which leaves no corner of the industry unchanged.
It would replace the historic antitrust consent decree that broke up the Bell telephone system in 1984, freeing the seven regional Baby Bell companies to offer long-distance services while forcing them to open the local telephone business to new rivals.
The bill lets cable television and telephone companies attack each others' markets, as each industry races to offer a full menu of telephone, video and high-speed data communications. The bill also relaxes ownership restrictions in broadcasting, allowing companies to greatly increase the number of radio and television stations a single company can own.
And it contains provisions that make it a crime to transmit indecent sexual material over computer networks, and require TV manufacturers to begin including the V chip to allow parents to block undesirable programming.
Thursday's vote came after Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the majority leader, dropped his objections to a provision that he attacked as a multibillion-dollar giveaway for television broadcasters.
That provision essentially reserves a segment of the nation's airwaves, estimated to be worth as much as $70 billion, for television broadcasters to start new digital television services.
Dole effectively blocked the bill several weeks ago, arguing that the provision amounted to corporate welfare for media companies at a time when Congress was cutting funds for social welfare programs.
But Thursday he let the bill proceed unchanged - though not without being blasted by numerous Democrats for capitulating - after he obtained assurances from Republicans and from the Federal Communications Commission that no licenses would be given until after Congress revisits the issue in a separate bill.
Overall, however, Thursday's votes drew a chorus of praise from almost every segment of the communications industry. But consumer groups complained that the measure would lead to higher prices for telephone and cable customers, and civil-liberties groups were furious about provisions aimed at blocking sexual material on computer networks.
In industry, the biggest winners Thursday were the seven regional Bell companies that have been prohibited from entering the $70 billion long-distance market since they were created 12 years ago.
It remains unclear how quickly this will take place, but executives at AT&T predicted Thursday that head-to-head rivalry from the Bells could arrive within two years.
Under the new law, the Bell companies must open their local networks to competition by satisfying a detailed checklist of requirements that aspiring rivals have said are essential for entering the local phone business.