AFTER YEARS of the most cautions kind of slow motion, the Telecommunications Bill has now begun to trot with unusual haste. The scope of this legislation is literally incalculable, for it attempts to establish the legal framework for a technology now unfolding faster than any other. It would, in effect, establish the terms of future competition between the dominant American Telephone & Telegraph Company and the rest of an emerging industry. The sponsors of this legislation have evidently decided to try to get it enacted this year. A few days ago, the Senate Commerce Committee suddenly produced a new draft of the bill and, in the interest of speed, is proceeding to report it to the floor without hearings.
The reader needs to take note that this newspaper probably has a commercial interest in the way this legislation turns out. But it's a broad interest, hardly confined to newspaper companies. The new legislation is a sweeping revision of the Communications Act of 1934, ratifying the policy that other companies may compete with AT&T in providing long-distance service. In return, it gives AT&T the opportunity to go into the information business.
It is never a simple matter to regulate a monopoly that is simultaneously engaged in an unregulated competitive business. It becomes unusually complex when the monopoly in question owns the network through which its competitors would have to operate. You have heard the future information industry described as a matter of computers talking to each other. But the computers will also be talking to you. The phone company now gives you the weather report. With present technology, it could also provide the baseball results, the outcome of the Japanese election or the arrival time of the next flight from Los Angeles.The British Post Office is already transmitting that kind of information, commercially, to subscribers' television screens.
A great variety of computer, communications and news companies are moving toward this promising business. That's fine. The more competition, the better. But the question is whether AT&T, which will design and own crucial switching and accounting equipment, will be competing on the same terms as everyone else. We can't offer you a judgment on this bill, since the present language has only recently appeared. But surely this is not the sort of legislation that should go to the Senate floor without hearings.
The Senate Commerce Committee will argue that it held hearings last year on earlier drafts raising similar issues. But precisely how does the present bill resolve those issues? All the potential competitors -- not to mention consumers -- are entitled to an opportunity to examine this extrordinarily influential legislation and speak to it, before the Senate votes.