Gentlemen, Start Your Modems!

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WASHINGTON, D. C.: On a 414-16 vote, the House overwhelmingly passed a sweeping telecommunications bill that would deregulate cable rates, restrict "indecent" materials on computer networks and let cable and telephone companies enter each other's businesses. The vote is the first major reworking of the nation's 61-year old Communications Act, which regulates the $700 billion telecommunications industry. Large media, cable and telephone companies had lobbied hard for the bill, which they say will create competition that will benefit consumers with lower rates and increased choices. Consumer advocates countered that deregulation would actually decrease competition by allowing large companies to own a greater number of media outlets in any city. The bill also drew fire from civil libertarians for measures that would outlaw the transmission of indecent materials to minors over computer networks. Final passage of the bill had been held up for weeks while Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said he would not pass any legislation that included a federal "giveaway" of digital television licenses that could net the public an estimated $11 billion to $70 billion if auctioned off. Dole dropped his opposition late Wednesday after agreeing to a proposal that would let Congress table until later a decision on whether to make broadcasters pay for the licenses. President Clinton is expected to sign the bill.