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CONGRESS PASSES TELECOM REFORM BILL

WASHINGTON-Congress passed landmark telecommunications reform legislation late last week, paving the way for the wireless lane of the information superhighway and setting the stage for a fierce debate on a national spectrum policy bill later this year.

The measure, which President Clinton is expected to sign this week, creates national antenna siting guidelines that prevent local zoning boards from arbitrarily blocking the installation of an estimated 100,000 antennas by operators of next-generation, digital pocket telephone systems that deliver new personal communications services.

“With this legislation today we are building the information superhighway that will lead all Americans into a more prosperous future,” said Clinton.

Both chambers approved the bill by overwhelming margins. The House vote was 414-16; the Senate, 91-5.

Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), chairman of the House-Senate telecom conference, said the rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act “is the largest jobs bill to come before the Senate in a very long time.”

The legislation was hung up for weeks by objections of Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) to what he considers a “giveaway” of broadcast TV spectrum worth $70 billion in the bill.

Dole finally gave in after top Republican leaders-some who support him and some who do not-promised to hold hearings on the issue and the FCC pledged not to award digital broadcast TV licenses before the issue is resolved.

The wireless telecommunications industry, which has spent nearly $9 billion on narrowband and broadband PCS licenses, backs Dole but did not want the controversy to interfere with passage of the telecommunications bill. The White House and consumer advocates also believe broadcast TV channels should be sold.

Though only a small component of a huge bill that deregulates the telecommunications industry and allows local telephone companies, long-distance carriers and cable TV operators to compete with each other, the antenna siting provision included in the legislation represents a huge victory for the wireless telecommunications industry.

“Building out the wireless infrastructure is a top priority of the industry and [the bill] will be a major boost to companies and ultimately to American consumers,” said Jay Kitchen, president of the Personal Communications Industry Association.

The Federal Communications Commission is selling thousands of broadband and narrowband personal communications services licenses, making it the most competitive telecommunications sector in the United States. There were serious concerns that unless the antenna siting issue was addressed, the nation’s broad wireless policy objectives would be thwarted.

The bill exempts commercial wireless carriers from long-distance equal access obligations, but gives the FCC the power to ensure that subscribers get easy dial-up access to the interexchange carrier of their choice.

PCS, paging, cellular and specialized mobile radio operators can now bundle equipment and services.

Long-distance wireless restrictions on the seven regional Bell telephone companies disappear, and the Baby Bells are now free to manufacture telecommunications equipment.

The telecommunications bill also is significant for what it does not do. It leaves intact regulatory parity and deregulatory gains of 1993 legislation, and goes on to further deregulate the industry.

Unbundled interconnection obligations imposed on local exchange carriers were not extended to commercial wireless carriers, but federal regulators can override that exclusion if a wireless provider is reclassifed as a LEC.

The legislation also moots the Justice Department’s contention that AirTouch Communications Inc., a wireless spin-off of Pacific Telesis Group, should be bound by 1982 consent decree restrictions imposed on the parent firm and the other Bells created from the break up of AT&T Corp.

“As long as President Clinton signs this bill we can fully participate in the global wireless arena,” said Sam Ginn, chairman of AirTouch.

Related decree conditions accompanying Justice’s approval of AT&T’s $11.5 billion purchase of McCaw Cellular Communications Inc. last year are canceled by the sweeping overhaul of the nation’s 62-year-old telecommunications laws.

Vice President Gore, a powerful voice for telecommunications in the administration, called passing the bill “an historic event that will change forever the way every American lives, works, learns and communicates.”

Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said the bill promises “good, high-paying jobs,” and “competition and its benefits of lower prices, higher quality and better service to us all.”

The Consumer Federation of America predicts, however, the legislation will lead to less competition and higher prices for consumers as consolidation and ownership concentration in telecommunications accelerates.

Large telecommunications firms have had massive layoffs and repositioned themselves with new strategic partnerships in recent years anticipating the changing telecommunications landscape.

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