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Congress Clears Communications Bill

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With the removal of a final roadblock, Congress last week swiftly passed a far-reaching bill that would overhaul the nation's 62-year-old communications law and ensure that schools can obtain access to advanced telecommunications at preferential rates.

The Senate passed the Communications Act of 1996 on a vote of 91-5 on Feb. 1. Less than an hour later, the House approved the bill, 414-16. President Clinton is expected to sign it, probably this week.

The bill includes provisions drafted by Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., guaranteeing schools "affordable access" to digital-communications networks. State regulatory agencies would set the rates.

Schools generally pay higher business rates for telephone service, and without the new provisions, might also have paid a premium for the advanced services that soon may be available.

"We are poised to take advantage of the greatest revolution in technology in generations," Sen. Snowe said. "The Snowe-Rockefeller provisions will make sure it reaches all Americans."

Protecting Children

The bill also includes language requiring television manufacturers to install so-called "v-chips" in new television sets, which would allow parents to screen out programs they deem too violent or sexually explicit for children.

And the bill would impose criminal penalties on those who make pornographic and indecent material available to children on-line.

Some educators argue that even with growing access to the global Internet computer network in the classroom, software already exists to screen out objectionable material. Others, however, say such legislation is needed, particularly to protect children at home.

"Parents and children won today," said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Christian Coalition, a group of religious conservatives that lobbied heavily for the anti-pornography provision. "We now have guarantees that the Internet will be child-safe and family-friendly."

Billions of dollars of revenue for cable, telephone, computer, and media companies were at stake in the debate over the telecommunications bill, whose passage was threatened many times by disagreements on regulatory issues.

The final roadblock was overcome last week when the Clinton administration assured Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., that no new licenses for digital broadcasting would be issued this year, giving Congress time to reconsider a provision Mr. Dole deemed a "giveaway" to broadcasters.

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