Republican leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee and the nation's newspaper publishing industry moved yesterday toward a major compromise on legislation defining the role of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. in the home information market.
Key Senate supporters of telecommunications legislation, including Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), the committee chairman, detailed new legislative language sharply limiting AT&T's authority to offer electronic advertising on home terminals, reversing a postion that had brought the bill's supporters into a bitter controversy with the American Newspaper Publishers Association.
A spokesman for the ANPA, in endorsing the changes and therefore the controversial legislation, said association members will be urged to back the bill. "I think we will see many publishers supporting it," said Robert Marbut, president of Harte-Hanks Communications and chairman of the ANPA telecommunications committee. Committee leaders hope to begin mark-up of the legislation next week.
Officially, AT&T said its lawyers would study the new language. Even though the telephone company may not endorse the specific proposal, the broader bill is of such importance to its future business prospects in the communications sector that yesterday's agreement likely will speed up Senate committee passage of the bill.
At the same time, AT&T announced yesterday that it would cancel plans to begin a landmark home information test in Austin, Tex., this summer. The test had been opposed aggressively by the ANPA and a Texas newspaper group.
AT&T Vice President Randall Tobias said "protracted regulatory and legal preceedings' caused the decision.
"We continue to believe the concerns of newspaper publishers in Texas are based on a misunderstanding of the objectives" of the test, Tobias said. But Tobias said AT&T does not "intend to let the parade of competing technologies pass us by."
Supporters of the bill have stated consistently that the publishers represent the most politically significant opposition to the legislation, which would revamp the regulatory structure of the industry and wipe out restraints of a 1956 AT&T consent decree with the government that bars the company from offering unregulated services.
Nevertheless, opposition to the legislation from segments of the computer business and long distance communications firms continued yesterday. For example, Paul S. Quinn, a lawyer for the Independent Data Communications Manufacturers Association, said that even with key amendments the bill "remains fundamentally and substantially flawed."
When the bill was introduced earlier this year, it would have permitted AT&T to provide a variety of advertising and other services displayed in the home that newspaper publishers felt would have given AT&T a distinct advantage in the home information market.
"At a minimum, the result of the telephone company provision of mass media services would be an inhibition to entry by diverse information sources; at worse it would result in monopolization of the market," Marbut told the committee last month. In essence, the newspaper industry representatives have favored a system that would permit AT&T to transmit these types of information over their lines, but not to originate the data.
AT&T has said consistently that it would be unfair to exclude the company from adapting the Yellow Pages to the electronic environment.
The new language would permit A&T to provide directory services on home printers that supply names, addresses and business identifications.
But AT&T would be barred from converting those listings into advertising, in competition with newspapers and other advertising forms. Under the plan, At&T would be able to provide advertising-like information to homes in communities served by other telephone companies.
In another development, AT&T asked a federal court here to dismiss the Justice Department's antitrust suit seeking a breakup of the Bell System. The administration is considering ordering Justice to drop the case. In papers filed with U.S. District Court Judge Harold Greene, AT&T called the government case "pathetic."