The Senate Commerce Committee, moving telecommunications legislation out of a five-year Senate logjam, yesterday voted 16 to 1 to approve a Republican-sponsored bill that revamps the structure of the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., the entire industry and the regulatory role of the Federal Commuinications Commission.
The only dissenter was Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), the former chairman of the communications subcommittee, who called the complex legislation "AT&T's bill" and failed in severl attempts to amend the measure.
The most siginificant facet of the legislation would permit AT&T to set up a separate subsidiary to market unregulated services, a move that wipes out provisions of a 1956 consent decree between the Bell System and the federal government. That decree bars AT&T from competing in unregulated markets, such as the data-processing field.
The 90-minute markup of the legislation sponsored by Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) and the rest of the committee's leadership represents the most siginificant step the Senate Commerce Committee has ever taken on telecommunications legislation. Packwood called the vote "momentus."
Last year, Packwood's predeccessor as chairman, Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), said he would not let the committee consider an earlier version of the bill in light of AT&T opposition to key sections of the legislation. Cannon enthusiastically backed the new bill yesterday.
The legislation's passage was not certain until the sponsors and the American Newspaper Publishers Association agreed to bar AT&T from offering a variety of new home-information services. The ANPA's subsequent support for the bill, combined with the introduction of new language limiting local regulation of cable systems and thus bringing the support of the cable industry for the bill, virtually assured its passage.
In addition, the committee, by a 9-to-8 vote, approvded an amendment offered by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that exempted the burglar alarm industry from short-run competition with AT&T.
Although the Reagan administration has issued general support for the legislation, the long-term are clouded on several fronts. The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) wants referral of the bill because of Thurmond's concerns about the legislation's antitrust implications.
Part of that concern stems from the fact that administration officials and Packwood believe telecommunications legislation will not pass the House until the Justice Department's antitrust suit against AT&T is dropped. The administration currently is considering doing just that.
Across the Capitol, Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of the House communications subcommittee, has said he thinks the Senatee bill does not adequately consider the needs of telecommunications users, such as large corporations. They claim the bill deregulates industry sectors that are not truly competitive. Wirth expects to introduce his own telecommunications legislation in the fall.
Other opponents of the Senate plan include long-distance competitors of AT&T and computer and data-processing industry concerns. "This bill is hopelessly confusing, and if people think the industry was litigious before, they haven't seen anything yet," said William MCgowan, chairman of MCI Communications Corp. "It's going to be a mess."
A. G. W. Biddle, president of the Communications and Computer Industry Association, said that "if the bill is so flawed, so that entire industries are exempted, clearly the damage to those who have not been so favorably treated is obvious." Biddle said he hopes the administration will review the legislation in light of the "consequences this will have for the U.S. computer industry's world leadership."