Ranking members of the House communications subcommittee yesterday proposed a major overhaul of federal communications laws that would have far-reaching effects on radio and television stations, the telephone company and other communications companies.
One key provision would force American Telephone & Telegraph Co. to divest itself of Western Electric Co., its equipment manufacturing subsidiary, three years after enactment if the telephone giant still has a monopoly on providing telephone services at that time. But the bill would also allow AT & T to expand operations into services and products from which it is now barred.
The proposed legislation would eliminate almost entirely federal regulation of cable television and radio: would simplify televison and radio licensing procedures eventually making all licenses good for an indefinite period, and would ease current rules outlining broadcasters' required presentation of opposing points of views.
In addition, the measure would set up a license-fee system designed to reflect both the cost of regulation and the value of the license. The fees collected would go into a fund to be used to defray the costs of regulation and to support public broadcast programming, minority ownership of stations, and the development of telecommunications services in rural areas.
The bill would also place a limit on the number of radio and television stations any one entirely could own but would not require broadcast property owners already over the limit to divest themselves of any stations. The ceilings would apply when present owners seek to transfer or sell their licensed holdings.
The legislation was developed over the last 20 months by the subcommittee staff at the direction of Chairman Lionel Van Deerlin (D-Calif.) and ranking minority member Louis Frev Jr. (R-Fla.) who jointly introduced the 217-page measure yesterday.
The bill is expected to be debated by Congress over the next year or two as that body moves to updte the nation's telecommunications policy for a vastly more complicated and technologically advanced world than existed when the Communications Act of 1934 and even the the Communications Satellite Act of 1962 were passed. Both would be replaced by the new legislation.
Both sponsors said at a press conference unveiling the proposal yesterday that they weren't wedded to all the provisions but felt the measure was a good "starting point."
Rep. Van Deerlin said he hoped for enactment sometime in 1979 or 1980.
The bill's short policy declaration says simply that telecommunications services should be regulated only "to the extent marketplace force are deficient" to make diverse, reliable, and efficient services available to the public at affordable rates, and to protect U.S. foreign policy, national defense, and the safety of life and property.
In an effort to assure "affordable telephone rates and the availability of nationwide telephone service, the measure would establish a fund which would be financed by access charges on all common carriers using local exchange facilities. Money would then be disbursed to telephone companies by a revamped Federal Communications Commission, which would become the Communications Regulatory Commission.
The new commission would have five members, instead of the current seven, and each would serve for a single term of 10 years. Another governmental change envisioned by the bill would replace the National Telecommunication and Information Administration recently set up in the Commerce Department with an independent policymaking arm of the executive branch called the National Telecommunications Agency.It would develop and implement a national telecommunications policy.
Under the broadcasting provisions of the proposal, television licenses would be extended initially for five years rather than three, but would become indefinite 10 years after enactment of the bill.
Owners of broadcast properties would be limited to a maximum of five radio and five television stations, with no more than three TV stations in the top-50 markets and only one station per market.
Owners may now hold up to 21 stations - seven TV no more than five of which can be VHF, seven AM radio and seven FM radio. Current owners whose holdings are above the limits would not be affected until they seek to swap or sell their properties.
The bill would do away with the time-consuming and expensive hearings when there is more than one application for an available radio for television frequency and substitute a random selection system.
The measure would also replace the so-called Fariness Doctrine, which requires that opposing viewpoints be heard - with an "equity principle" requiring that television stations - but not radio stations - must provide some news, public affairs and locally produced programming and must treat "controversial issues of public importance in an equitable manner."
In addition, the bill would exempt candidates for president, vice president, the Senate, and other statewide offices from "equal time" requirements. Equal time requirements for local candidates which remain would apply only to television.
In the common carrier area, the legislation would allow any telecommunications company, including AT&T, to provide any telecommunications-related services or products, as long as it is through a separate company. This provision would have the effect of freeing AT&T from restraints of a 1956 consent order under which it could use its equipment only to provide telephone service and is prohibited from providing unregulated services.
Also, the bill could force AT&T to shed Western Electric by prohibiting any carrier with a monopoly service from manufacturing equipment used to provide that service. Staff members said General Telephone & Electronics Corp. would also be affected by this provision.