Taking Net Services Rural

Lawmakers work to branch out long-distance and high-speed options but must meet FCC Approval.

Washington lawmakers are pondering ways to bring more high-speed Internet service options to rural parts of the country.

Last week, Reps. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and John Dingell, D-Mich., pushed a bill that would allow incumbent local exchange carriers—RBOCs (Regional Bell Operating Companies), for the most part—to provide long-distance data services without having to meet competition promoting requirements of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Proponents say the bill will help businesses and consumers in rural and poor urban areas who have few choices in Internet access services. For example, Texas A&M Universitys main campus is in the relatively populated and prosperous College Station, but it supports regional offices in towns as remote as Fort Stockton, more than a three-hour drive from the nearest airport.

"This is pretty much way, way, way out in the sticks," said Walt Magnessen, telecommunications manager at Texas A&M. "I dont have a choice between [digital subscriber line], cable modems, ISDN and satellite, but the lack of choice in that sense isnt hurting us. However, we definitely enjoy benefits other enterprises dont enjoy."

One benefit comes from a Texas law that has fixed the rate incumbent service providers can charge state agencies for broadband data services. Before the law was enacted, Texas A&M paid as much as $1,380 a month for a T-1 line at its far-flung regional offices, but it now pays just $320 a month.

That states legislative mandate, however, does not help private enterprises.

Before RBOCs can offer long-distance services, they must meet a checklist from the Federal Communications Commission demonstrating that their local markets are open to rival service providers. The Tauzin-Dingell bill would allow RBOCs into the long-distance data and Internet business without FCC approval. It would also relieve the incumbents of the duty to provide interconnection and other local access to competing data carriers.

Proponents of the Tauzin-Dingell bill say it would allow the RBOCs to compete on a level playing field with cable companies. "Ninety-five percent of the countrys Internet users are still stuck with low-speed, dial-up service," said Dingell at a hearing here last week. "The troubling fact is that cable companies now control more than 70 percent of the broadband Internet market."

Opponents argue that the bill would reduce competition by eliminating the RBOCs greatest incentive to open local markets to rivals. Calling it "an incumbency protection program, plain and simple," Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said the measure would harm competitive carriers and other startup companies. "In order to benefit four corporate behemoths, thousands of companies will suffer the consequences," Markey said.

Last year, the initiative gained considerable support before ultimately being defeated. Ironically, the legislation is prompting members to devise new regulations to ensure that incumbent carriers will provide the services they say they will, particularly in underserved areas. Five years after the Telecommunications Act attempted to promote improved services and lower prices through deregulation, some lawmakers are eyeing reregulation as a better means of achieving the same goal.