Effect Of Media Law Believed Months Away Local And Long-distance Firms Won't Compete Right Away, The Fcc Chief Says. The V-chip? Years Distant.

Posted: February 13, 1996

WASHINGTON — It is going to take a long time for consumers to see some major effects of the revolutionary new federal communications law, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said yesterday.

One important impact, the entry of local and long-distance telephone companies into each others' markets, will not come for many months, FCC Chairman Reed Hundt said.

And the much-vaunted V-chip to let parents block reception of potentially offensive TV programs is at least two years away, Hundt said.

Hundt also suggested that under the new law, some consumers might find themselves paying more, not less, for telecommunications services than they do now.

``You should be able to get more for your money,'' he said. ``You may pay more, but you'll get more.''

Even though the new law means a ``truly a monumental increase in the tasks assigned'' to the FCC, Hunt pledged to beat deadlines imposed by Congress to create some 80 major new rules.

But beating the paperwork deadline - most must be completed by August - does not necessarily mean consumers will see big changes from the new law soon.

``None of the Bell companies will seek entry into long-distance until we complete the rule-making,'' Hundt said. He said the companies would ``read the order'' for about six months, then file their requests to enter the market, after which the FCC, the Justice Department and states must review them.

One of the Bell companies, Pacific Telesis, predicted last week that it would take 13 to 18 months before it is ready to offer long-distance service as part of a package deal to its local phone customers in California.

It will take even longer, according to the FCC's draft timetable, for other aspects of the bill to become reality.

New types of ``universal service,'' which extend the old notion of a subsidized phone line into access to the information highway, will not be defined until 1997. Neither will the rules for making the new services accessible to people with disabilities.

But some changes are already being felt. Companies are proposing mergers or joint services; Ameritech said it would offer long-distance service to its cellular subscribers; and the FCC has already received its first filing under the new law, by a utility that wants to offer phone service.

Hundt said that activity shows that consumers ``are winners'' in the bill, and will quickly see many companies offering package deals, such as a discount on cable TV when they buy cellular phone service.

``You're going to see this week people get product offerings they wouldn't have gotten before this law,'' he said.

Hundt said the agency's task would be to create rules within the spirit of the law's pro-competitive nature, while maintaining the agency's role in protecting the public interest.

``One clear message of this law, in the communications sector, the era of big government is over,'' said Hundt, echoing President Clinton's State of the Union Address last month.

But Hundt's pledge leaves questions about how the FCC will carry out the rest of its duties, which the chairman said he does not ``want to slow down'' as a result of the bill.

Less than two weeks ago, the agency said it did not have the resources to properly carry out the heavy rule-writing mandate of the new telecommunications law. For example, the bill gives the FCC 180 days - until Aug. 6 - to write hundreds of pages of rules containing the details of a competitive ``checklist'' that local phone companies must pass in order to offer long-distance service.

The agency has several other deadlines for creating or revising rules governing everything from ``universal service'' to digital television. The job is so extensive that a simple outline of it provided to reporters yesterday spans 44 pages.

At the same time, the FCC's $176 million budget for 1996 has been cut by about $10 million from last year's levels, and its funding authority expires in March if Congress and the administration cannot agree on budget differences. Moreover, the FCC soon faces an expensive, forced move to new facilities in southwest Washington.

Hundt said his staff intends to spend the next several weeks lobbying Congress privately to reconsider the agency's funding.

``I wish we had gotten the [$186 million] appropriation the House thought was right,'' he said.

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