HOW TO IMPROVE TELCOM BILL

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The telecommunications bill approved by the Senate this month is a bold step, one that we support because it pulls down regulatory fences that limit or bar competition between local and long-distance telephone companies and between telephone and cable TV companies.

Consumers should benefit from more offerings and better prices, and the major marketing efforts needed to win share of market will build business for agencies, promotion specialists, media and other marketing services providers.

But the Senate bill also invites major ownership consolidations in radio, where it would lift all limits on the size of radio station chains, and TV, where the Big Four broadcast networks and others would be able to own stations reaching as many as 35% of the nation's TV homes, up from 25% today. The House could raise the 35% limit still more. Will fewer, bigger owners of local broadcasting outlets necessarily mean better programming for the public and a better marketplace for advertisers? We're not so certain.

One thing, however, is clear. Deregulation talk ended abruptly when the Senate made its telecommunications bill address the subject of pornography and indecent matter on the Internet. On this issue, Republicans and Democrats do an aboutface and seem only too happy to call in the feds-without hearings or testimony-to regulate. Sen. James Exon (D., Neb.) led the charge to criminalize "indecent" material made available to minors on the Internet.

We supported, and still support, his demand that the online community deal with this plague. But the House will improve this history-making legislation if it rejects Sen. Exon's Internet crackdown as premature.

Marketers and others with a stake in the online world's future need a solution to the smut problem, one that works in the unique Internet environment. And ideas for voluntary technical fixes to deal with it already have come forward. So let's demand an answer from the online industry. If it can't-or won't-produce one, then call in the G-men. But don't hold a good deregulation bill hostage in the meantime.

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