The telephone industry, spoiling for a share of the lucrative cable television market, ran head-on into the newspaper, cable and broadcast industries yesterday in a showdown on Capitol Hill.

Phone company representatives argued in favor of a Senate bill that not only would allow them into the cable industry but could ultimately pave the way for them to bring consumers new forms of video information and entertainment over their television sets. The industry argues that lifting restrictions that prevent it from offering programming would be the competitive antidote for existing cable operators, who have been criticized for soaring prices and indifferent service.

In making the phone companies' case, Dean Swanson, chairman of the U.S. Telephone Association, said letting phone companies into the cable business "provides a much-needed first step" that would speed the installation of fiber optic wire, which could bring a revolutionary array of video and audio services to U.S. households.

But the cable industry argues that the phone companies already hold a powerful monopoly service and would abuse their market power in ways that would eliminate competition.

The bill, authored by freshman Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and supported by the Bush administration, would do away with provisions of the Cable Act of 1984 that bar phone companies from selling video and text services to their phone customers.

The bill would still exclude from the business the seven "Baby Bell" operating companies, which are subject to court-imposed restrictions on what businesses they can enter. But it would allow other large operators, such as GTE, to compete with cable systems by running fiber optic wires into consumers' homes.

Fiber optic wire, a strand of flexible glass only 0.005 inches in diameter, has virtually unlimited capacity to carry voice, video and text data. While the cost of wiring America with fiber is currently considered prohibitive, the technology may someday carry everything from high-definition television programming to electronic newspapers to stereo-quality telephone calls.

The phone industry's efforts to control the fiber optic "highway" are opposed by an unusual coalition of industries that fear phone company ownership of fiber optic video networks could spell their economic ruin.

Opponents of the Burns bill -- ranging from consumer groups to TV station owners and newspaper publishers -- said yesterday the phone companies will use profits from their regulated phone businesses to unfairly "cross-subsidize" their entry into cable and ultimately snuff out competitors.

"What the telephone companies really want is what cable already has -- an entrenched monopoly with built-in incentives to block competition and to exercise its market dominance over the American consumer," said Gary Chapman, the president of LIN Broadcasting, who spoke in behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters. Given the choice, Chapman said he would prefer the cable industry over the phone companies.

The bill, and a nearly identical amendment expected to be offered in the House later this week by Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Ed Madigan (R-Ill.), contain a number of purported safeguards against abuses by telephone companies, such as provisions requiring them to establish separate cable subsidiaries that cannot be cross-subsidized by phone customers. The bill also restricts the phone companies to 25 percent of the available channels, requiring that independent programmers be given the rest.

But critics suggested these safeguards would not be enough. "The telephone companies just don't play fair, even under the existing rules," said Richard Simmons, president of The Washington Post Co., who represented the American Newspaper Publishers Association and the Media Group, a coalition of TV stations, cable systems and daily newspapers. "If they are allowed into cable ... the {phone companies} will be fighting {the safeguards} as hard and violate them as often as they have the current restrictions." In addition to publishing The Washington Post, the company also owns cable and broadcast outlets.

Simmons suggested there are other ways to make the cable industry more responsive to consumers, and mentioned re-regulation of rates and competition from emerging technologies such as direct-broadcast satellite.