Archive for Thursday, February 13, 2003

Amendments downplayed on online-service legislation

February 13, 2003

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— Major amendments offered by Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, were attached Wednesday to controversial telecommunications legislation sought by telephone giant SBC.

But opponents, including most other players in the industry, said the changes did not improve the bill.

"It's sausage. It can't be fixed and should be killed," said Alan Cobb, executive director of Kansans for Competitive Choices in Telecommunications, a coalition of large and small SBC competitors.

SBC-Kansas President Randy Tomlin said the changes did nothing to undermine his company's goal of blocking state regulation of its high-speed Internet services. Those services aren't currently regulated, but the Kansas Corporation Commission said it would review the rates SBC charges competitors for access to its system, most of which was built when the old Bell company had a monopoly on local telephony.

"The committee is on the right track," Tomlin said.

House Bill 2019 is before the House Utilities Committee, which has conducted 18 hours of hearings on the measure that has kept squads of lobbyists busy and left committee members struggling with reams of technical information and often conflicting testimony.

Committee Chairman Carl Holmes promised members they would complete their work on the bill by Friday, even if he must keep them late that afternoon to do it. A favorable recommendation by the committee would boost the bill's chances before the full House, where most members will not have the time to give the complex measure serious study.

Sloan tried Tuesday to offer his amendments as parts of a single substitute bill but was roundly rejected. He fared better Wednesday by offering much the same language in pieces that members could accept or reject without swallowing his entire plan.

Sloan said the aim of his amendments was to close a "digital divide" that exists between those Kansans who have access to high-speed Internet or broadband services and those who do not.

Key provisions added to the bill:

  • Kansas Development Finance Authority would be authorized to issue bonds in conjunction with local governments paired with private industry to finance construction of high-speed digital service facilities.
  • Dominant local telephone companies would be free after July 1, 2005, from rate regulation for fees charged to competitors for access to "unbundled network elements." That provision would lift measures that followed the 1996 telecommunications deregulation assuring that dominant companies such as SBC would not stifle competition by charging prohibitive rates for access to its system.

In June, the Kansas Corporation Commission counted at least 21 broadband service providers in the state with almost 150,000 high-speed access lines to customers. Most of the broadband customers were served by cable. And most Kansas broadband users are residential or small-business customers. That represented a three-fold increase in providers and customers since June 2000.

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