Members of the House and Senate are currently debating a number of bills that may well determine how Americans will communicate among themselves and with the world well into the next century.

While many of the bills are specifically designed to address abuses of power by the cable networks through reregulation, debate is expected to cover the broader issue of whether the nation's telephone companies should be allowed to bring competition to the cable marketplace as well the development of the nation's telecommunications infrastructure during the next decade.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), in a recent white paper on the subject, says they should. "With one bold stroke called competition, we can simultaneously address the immediate problem of cable's unchecked market power and stimulate the future development of new services. It is at once a monumental and exciting opportunity."

Boucher is just one of a number of representatives and senators who have proposed changes in the 1984 Cable Act. They have heard from their constituents who, in the absence of market or regulatory restraints, have seen their monthly cable bills soar even as the quality and reliability of services have deteriorated.

When Congress passed the Cable Act, the intention was to encourage the spread of cable across the country. To a large extent, that objective has been realized. But Congress also called for promoting competition and the "widest possible diversity of information and services" -- and that definitely has not happened.

Mergers and acquisitions have concentrated power among a few big cable operators. The operators and their program providers have weaved a bewildering web of interlocking cross-ownership arrangements, self-dealing and restrictive practices. It's not unusual for a cable operator to have an ownership interest in the programming -- leading, in some cases, to limitations on the choices of programs available to customers.

While the monopoly has caused anger and frustration among cable customers, the restrictions resulting from the Cable Act have far broader consequences. At stake is nothing less than America's ability to compete in the hotly contested global telecommunications marketplace. In Japan and Europe, telecommunications companies -- some with direct government subsidies -- are pouring resources into the development of digital switching and fiber-optic systems to carry vast quantities of information, including high-quality video data and voice communications.

Clearly, the most equitable way to correct this situation is to remove the unnatural barrier to the development and transmission of programming by telephone companies which is, after all, just another facet of telecommunications.

In the United States, fiber-optic transmission already is used for long-distance telephone lines and to connect local switching centers, but that's just the beginning. Telephone companies are exploring a new generation of technology based on fiber-optic transmission directly to home1931501934of providing many different services simultaneously, including voice, data and full-motion color video. The customer will control the network, using it for different functions at different times. For example, the network would allow two hearing-impaired people to communicate in sign language using their television sets to see each other, or a doctor could consult a patient at another location, even reading the patient's vital signs such as pulse and blood pressure, which would be transmitted over the network.

But while foreign telecommunications companies race ahead, U.S. companies are hobbled by uncertainty. Not only are they blocked by the 1984 act from pursuing a natural extension of their business, but they remain uncertain about who will use their all-fiber network after they spend huge amounts on development.

So it is a dollars-and-cents reality that the telephone companies cannot be asked to invest significant capital to keep America competitive if they must rely largely on their competitors as the only source of programming.

To correct this, Congress should eliminate the ban on telephone/cable cross ownership, both in the Cable Act and the Federal Communications Commission rules. Only if the telephone companies are given the option of participating in the content as well as transmitting programming will they be able to compete against cable operators and their tight affiliations with program providers.

As Michael Kinsley noted {op-ed, April 5}, telephone companies will rewire the nation's homes with fiber during the next few decades. The question is: Can we as a nation afford to wait for decades? Or should we have to, when the technology and opportunity are available now?

Some see a solution in turning back the clock to before 1984 and re-regulating the cable industry. But American free enterprise thrives on competition, not regulation. Indeed, the whole world is moving toward more competition, not less. It is only through open competition that the price for service will be driven down and better programming assured. And competition will provide the telephone companies economic incentive to install a fiber-optic network -- a necessity if the United States is to remain the telecommunications leader in the world.

A revolution in telecommunications has been put on hold in this country while cable operators have been licensed to profit at the public's expense. Only Congress can put it back on line by bringing competition to the cable industry.

The writer, senior vice president for external affairs and general counsel for GTE Corp., is a former deputy U.S. attorney general.