Archive for Saturday, February 15, 2003

House panel votes to kill broadband bill

February 15, 2003


— They called it a pig. They called it a gorilla.

Then they killed it.

Members of the House Utilities Committee concluded 18 hours of hearings and several more hours of debate on a controversial telecommunications bill Friday by defeating the measure 11-9.

The bill was sought by SBC, the telephone giant, which employed at least as many lobbyists as the committee has members. Opponents of the bill, including AT&T; and Sprint, fielded their own squads of lobbyists.

The AARP and the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board, the state's utility consumers' watchdog agency, also opposed the bill.

House Bill 2019 would have blocked state regulation of SBC's high-speed Internet services. The company said it needed that "regulatory certainty" if it were to invest millions of dollars in Kansas to extend its high-speed DSL data services to places it currently does not serve.

Opponents said an unfettered SBC would squelch competitors by not sharing its system or by charging prohibitive rates for access.

No middle ground emerged in the legislative fight, producing extraordinary pressure from lobbyists on committee members.

"I haven't ever been lobbied as hard as I've been on this issue," said Rep. Peggy Long, R-Madison, who has been in the Legislature since 1997. "I feel sorry for the freshmen. What a way to get your feet wet."

Opponents said they thought the old Bell company's full-court lobbying press might have worked against it, leaving some lawmakers peeved and indisposed to vote the SBC way.

Perhaps from the relief of an ordeal ended, committee Chairman Carl Holmes choked up while thanking committee members for their diligence.

"I'm proud of this committee," he said, a sob in his voice. "This was true government."

Holmes later said committee members had been under "tremendous pressure" from lobbyists.

SBC-Kansas President Randy Tomlin was visibly angered or shaken by the outcome. He refused comment except to read from a short prepared statement.

"The big losers today are the people of Kansas," he said. "They lost an opportunity to keep pace with other states. ... This was a short-sighted decision. It's a disappointment for the people of Kansas."

"It's a disappointment for SBC," responded Alan Cobb, executive director of a coalition of SBC opponents that includes Sprint, AT&T; and WorldNet LLC, a subsidiary of the company that also owns the Journal-World.

Tomlin would not say if SBC planned to push the measure further. The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday will begin considering the same issue on a national scale. The FCC could supersede anything Kansas decides on the issue.

Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, voted against the bill, saying it did nothing to erase the "digital divide" that exists between those who have access to high-speed Internet and those who do not.

Holmes told the committee it will deal no more with broadband legislation this session unless a bill is sent from the Senate, which currently has nothing duplicating HB 2019 under consideration.

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