Broadband bill passes Congressional committee stage

The US House of Representatives energy and commerce committee yesterday passed a controversial bill which aims to provide market...

The US House of Representatives energy and commerce committee yesterday passed a controversial bill which aims to provide market incentives to speed up the delivery of broadband Internet services to consumers and businesses.

The vote followed a day-long debate of an amended version of the bill and the consideration of several amendments - most of which were rejected - including one that would have required local telephone service providers to share more than just their copper loops with competitors. That amendment failed by the narrowest of margins.

The bill, titled the Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act of 2001, attempts to deregulate broadband services. Opponents say that because it limits line-sharing requirements only to copper, it favours incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) and would leave smaller competitors out in the cold.

During the long debate on the line-sharing amendment, which would have required the ILECs to share not only copper lines but also fibre-optic lines and remote terminals, supporters said it would have maintained Federal Communications Commission (FCC) orders already in place. They also said it would have helped salvage the businesses of digital subscriber line (DSL) providers such as Covad Communications that have struggled in the marketplace.

"I fear there will be only one choice for DSL [an ILEC] and the only other choice will be cable modem," said Heather Wilson, a Republican from New Mexico.

The committee chairman, however, said the amendment "strikes at the heart of the bill" and would impose requirements on fibre-optic lines that would "unravel the deregulatory provisions" of the bill.

Other representatives argued that the proposal would leave "Ma Cable" - a reference to AT&T, which now has substantial holdings in cable - totally without competitors in the last mile. If the line sharing requirements in the bill were expanded to include fibre and remote terminals, ILECs would not enter the broadband market, leaving it open to "a few pygmies", he said. The ILECs have the best chance to compete against AT&T and rapidly increasing the deployment of broadband services, Dingell said.

"You've got to get giants in there to compete," he said.

Specifically, the bill would require the ILECs to provide the high frequency portion of copper loops on an unbundled basis to carriers that request it. Neither the FCC nor state regulators could require ILECs to provide unbundled access to the loop at remote access terminals, and ILECs would be allowed to charge a competitor the same amount the ILEC charges itself for high-speed access.

In addition the amended bill would take away from the FCC and states the ability to regulate high-speed data and Internet access service. The original version of the bill proposed last month contained language that also limited the FCC's ability to force the regional Bell companies to open up their networks to competitors trying to use the established infrastructure to deliver services.

The amended draft, however, clarifies that it would seek only to deregulate high-speed data and Internet backbone services.

The provision of the amended bill "clarifies that the bill's prohibition on federal and state regulation of network elements only applies if those elements are used to provide high-speed data services, Internet backbone services or Internet access service."

The US Telecommunications Act of 1996 stipulated that ILECs can enter the long-distance market only when they open up their local markets to competition, and that stipulation has been interpreted by state and federal regulators, including the FCC, to mean that ILECs should lease out elements of their local networks to competitors entering their markets.

Once this bill is approved by the committee, it goes to the full House to be voted on and then must be signed by President Bush to become law. Another bill, which covers the tightening of enforcement of regulations applying to ILECs, would be attached to the Internet Freedom bill and House members would vote on them together, the committee chairman said.

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