US weights changes to telecoms

The US Senate has begun a debate on a sweeping plan that will overhaul the nation's communications laws for the first time in 61 years.

The proposal, introduced in February by Larry Pressler, would let local phone companies, long distance phone companies, and cable television firms begin competing against each other to offer a full range of communications and entertainment services.

It would also ease a host of broadcasting and foreign-ownership laws and lift most limits on the prices cable companies can charge subscribers.

'I think this is probably the most important bill we've considered all year,' Senate majority leader Bob Dole said when lawmakers began debating the plan.

'Competition, not regulation, has the best record in creating new jobs, spurring new innovation and creating new wealth.' 'My understanding is there's a lot of bipartisan support,' he said. 'We ought to be able to complete it fairly quickly.' Discussion about the plan is expected to be intense, with lawmakers proposing at least two dozen amendments.

Senate approval of the bill would come even in the face of opposition from President Bill Clinton, who has said that Mr Pressler's plan would lead to higher phone and cable prices. The White House has released a statement saying it 'strongly opposes' the plan.

A few amendments could be so controversial they could endanger the bill's fate on the Senate floor.

Perhaps the most disputed amendment will be one offered by Paul Wellstone to ban senators from accepting most gifts from lobbyists.

Senate leaders have asked Mr Wellstone to withdraw the amendment, which has nothing to do with telecommunications overhaul but would be permitted under the Senate's liberal rules for debate. So far he has refused, his aides said.

'The Wellstone amendment could really drag this out,' said Bell Atlantic Corp spokeswoman Shannon Fioravanti.

Mr Dole has proposed a package of amendments that would immediately ease cable rules for small operators, force the FCC to eliminate outdated regulations, and eliminate limits on the number of television stations any one company can own.

Senators approved on a voice vote amendment by Mr Pressler and Ted Stevens that would extend the FCC's authority to auction off new licences to use the airwaves, including some television bands, until the year 2000, a move that would raise US$7.1 billion.

The money would keep the bill within Senate budget rules by offsetting the US$7.1 billion that the measure would cost in subsidies to make sure that people in hard-to-reach areas can continue to get phone service.

Several other amendments are likely to be offered that would toughen laws against the airing of indecent or profane programming over broadcast and computer outlets. The bill includes a provision to control indecency over the Internet, the global computer network.

Mr Dole, who last lambasted the entertainment industry for distributing violent and indecent programmes and songs, is expected to propose amending the bill to outlaw the use of profanity over the radio, as well.

Another issue of debate is likely to be proposals by Olympia Snowe and John Rockefeller that would force phone companies to offer some services to schools, libraries, and hospitals at discounted rates.

While some Democrats want to toughen those provisions, opponents say the proposal would saddle the local phone companies with million-dollar burdens.