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Senate Presses for Action on HDTV, Phones

Telecom: Industry execs, regulators are taken to task for failing to deliver on price, choice and technology.


WASHINGTON — Reflecting rising anger with the telecommunications industry, lawmakers threatened tough action Wednesday to ensure the widespread availability of high-definition television and to spur greater local telephone competition.

At two rancorous Senate hearings, industry executives and government regulators were taken to task for failing to ensure that consumers get lower prices, greater choice and innovative technology that the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996 was designed to foster.

Under tough questioning, television executives insisted that they intend to live up to earlier promises that the new HDTV technology, offering super-sharp television pictures, will be widely available.

"The misconception is that ABC has abandoned HDTV," ABC television network President Preston Padden told a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. "That is not the case. ABC still remains committed to broadcast some HDTV programming,"

Similarly, Sinclair Broadcast Group President David D. Smith adopted a more conciliatory stance from his written testimony, telling the Commerce Committee that "HDTV will certainly be a component of our" air-time offerings.

Both the ABC television network and Sinclair Broadcast Group, the owner of 29 TV stations nationwide, had recently indicated they were considering airing up to five channels of standard video, rather than a single high-definition channel, in order to capture more advertising and offer viewers more choice.

The broadcast industry was given billions of dollars worth of airwaves for free, based on the expectation that it would broadcast high-definition programming.

Sen. John McCain (D-Ariz.), committee chairman, said the television executives were weakening their earlier pledges to widely offer high-definition television and accused some television station owners of abandoning the industry's promises.

Federal law does not require stations to air programs in high definition, a format that is expected to cost each television station between $2 million and $4 million to adopt.

Nonetheless, after taking a decade to reach a bipartisan consensus on telecommunications reform, Congress now seems reluctant to overhaul the 18-month-old law, observers say. The law was intended to allow broadcasters, cable TV operators and telephone companies to enter each other's markets.

Reed E. Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has said that competition will develop, but the marketplace, rather than federal bureaucrats, should decide whether HDTV will flourish.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said Hundt himself was to blame for HDTV's slow roll out because the FCC has not passed rules requiring broadcasters to offer it. Stevens said he would make sure the FCC holds broadcasters to their promise.

"The FCC has failed to even attempt to get a standard for high- definition TV," Stevens said. "I don't think we are going to see HDTV in our lifetimes unless . . . someone takes the lead" on this issue.

Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust appeared eager to take a more aggressive approach to jump-start competition in the $100-billion local phone business.

A flurry of lawsuits, including one filed this week by a group representing state regulatory commissioners, has hobbled the FCC's implementation of the reform bill and blocked the expected benefit of telephone competition.

The congressional outcry has triggered the introduction of a bill that would strengthen federal regulators' ability to fight the industry in court.

The Telecommunications Act, said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee, "was supposed to open up competition in the local, long-distance and cable markets . . . unfortunately, we have seen little of the head-to-head competition that we anticipate."

Panel members and the FCC's Hundt, who testified before the subcommittee, blamed much of the lack of competition on phone companies tying up telecommunications reform in court.

On Wednesday, subcommittee member Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.) moved quickly to try to address the problem of litigiousness by introducing a bill that would consolidate appeals of FCC decisions involving the Telecommunications Reform Act and move them to federal courts in the District of Columbia.

If enacted, experts say the measure would greatly enhance the rule-making ability of the FCC, which has recently had a better than 80% success rate in litigation heard in the District of Columbia court circuit.

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