Vote on Broadband Bill Spurs New Ad Drive

Warring telecom factions are again turning to advertising to get their message across to consumers and lawmakers, in advance of the U.S. House of Representatives’ scheduled vote on the controversial Tauzin-Dingell broadband deregulation bill.

The bill, on which the House is slated to vote in two weeks, would revise the Telecom Act of 1996 to allow the Baby Bells — Verizon, BellSouth, SBC and Qwest — to offer broadband Internet access over their existing long-distance lines without requiring them to open their local lines to outside competition.

As a result, the bill — known officially as H.R. 1542, “The Internet Freedom and Broadband Bill,” and introduced in 1998 by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s chairman W. J. “Billy” Tauzin, R-La., and ranking Democrat John Dingell, D-Mich. — would drastically alter the competitive landscape of broadband providers.

The U.S. Telecom Association, an advocacy group funded by the Baby Bells, is planning a series of print ads in Washington, D.C.-area dailies to encourage passage of the bill. But at the same time, rival association Voices for Choices, which is financed in large part by long distance players like AT&T, is gearing up for a campaign of its own.

The USTA ads point to the differences in rules covering high-speed Internet access between cable and telecom providers.

For one thing, the ads highlight the increased choice among broadband providers that consumers could gain through a deregulated DSL market — a shot at cable broadband access providers, which dominate about 73 percent of the residential high-speed access market.

“If cable giants remain the sole beneficiaries of an interventionist U.S. policy, then the real losers will be consumers,” said USTA president and chief executive Walter McCormick, Jr. “Tauzin-Dingell would end the unequal treatment, so all companies offering high-speed services are free to aggressively challenge the current cartel. It’s time for policy makers to tip over the board, so a competitive marketplace can deliver a game in which consumers win.”

While the USTA will be debuting new print ads, Voices for Choices will make its case with a new television spot, which aims to poke holes in the Bells’ claims.

The spot shows the words “The Bells’ Claims” being blown up and then deflated, as a voiceover says: “First the Bell monopolies claimed that Tauzin-Dingell would be great for rural America. Then experts revealed Tauzin-Dingell would actually hurt rural deployment. Now the Bells say Tauzin-Dingell will revive the entire American economy. Oh sure. Fact is, 20 independent state public utility commissions and consumer groups oppose Tauzin-Dingell. The incredible, inflatable Tauzin-Dingell bill. They huff and they puff and it’s still a bad bill.”

In any event, the ads continue the two camps’ long posturing over the controversial bill, which has come up in the House for each of the past four years.

Previous USTA ads highlighted the revenue and the boost to the U.S. economy that theoretically could be generated by expanding broadband. Meanwhile, Voices for Choices has run print campaigns highlighting small and mid-sized local phone companies — which benefit from regulatory controls on the Bells. The latest spot from that effort highlighted the role of small telecom companies in restoring communications in lower New York City after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

In addition to advertising, the groups have long funded public relations and lobbying efforts as well as publicity stunts like rallies to promote their causes.

The likely vote would mark the closest that the bill has come to passage in its almost four-year history. In May, the House Commerce Committee approved Tauzin-Dingell, but the bill was sent back to House leadership after the Judiciary Committee voted against it.

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