Trying to read the smoke signals billowing from the Bush administration yesterday for clues about the governments plans for promoting broadband services, each of the diametrically opposed telecommunications camps interpreted them as a victory for its side.
The Regional Bell Operating Companies and their rivals, including the major long-distance companies and competitive local exchange carriers, for two years have been locked in a contentious legislative battle over the future of regulations governing data services. The Bells want the government to eliminate requirements forcing them to give rivals access to the local network, at regulated terms, which they consider unfair. They secured support in the House of Representatives in the form of a bill sponsored by Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and John Dingell, D-Mich. The measure is stuck in limbo, however, because of stiff opposition in the Senate, where critics view it as a way to reduce competition by preventing rival service providers from gaining access to customers.
Throughout the heated debate--which is periodically punctuated with obscure radio and newspaper advertisements--the White House has remained quiet and non-committal. Yesterday, however, at his economic forum in Waco, Texas, President Bush spoke at some length about broadband and its importance to the economy.
"In order to make sure the economy grows, we must bring the promise of broadband technology to millions of Americans. My administration is promoting investment in broadband," Bush said. "But government at all levels should remove hurdles that slow the pace of deployment."
Bush said that the White House will work to prevent new access taxes on broadband, and he noted that the Federal Communications Commission is considering policies to encourage high-speed Internet services. He did not say, however, whether he supports eliminating rules forcing the Bells to allow rivals to use the local network at regulated terms.
Nonetheless, both the Bell camp and the long-distance camp raced to claim victory out of the presidents words. AT&T Corp. emphasized the comment regarding investment and interpreted it as support for promoting competition among carriers.
"President Bush has struck the right chord today in his recognition that the keys to expanding investment in broadband technology is to ensure robust competition and create demand," said Claudia Jones, an AT&T spokeswoman, in a prepared statement. "We look forward to being part of the discussion about the best ways to spur broadband demand, create competition, and ensure that the right broadband policies are in place to help the economy grow."
Meanwhile, BellSouth Corp. deciphered the presidents words to mean support for doing away with regulations targeted at the Bells.
"The presidents declaration today is most welcome," said Hershel Abbott, BellSouth vice president for governmental affairs. "It demonstrates the growing realization in official Washington that the same rules ought to apply to every company that offers broadband high-speed Internet access services to the American public."
The only thing thats sure is that the smoke has not cleared.