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WASHINGTON (AP) - Driven by phantoms and fear of real-life bureaucrats and lawyers, the House voted Tuesday to permanently ban the Federal Communications Commission from extending certain telephone access charges to the Internet.
Much of the House debate centered on a rumor sweeping the Internet about a phony piece of legislation - sponsored by an equally non-existent Rep. Tony Schnell - that would supposedly impose a per-minute access charge on Internet service providers, ultimately to be passed on to consumers.
Congressional offices have been bombarded with thousands of e-mail messages protesting the false move, which some lawmakers said was the main reason the House was rushing to consider the real piece of legislation. It passed on voice vote.
``What we are considering today is a fabricated solution to an imaginary problem,'' said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. ``We have here a bill that solves a problem that doesn't really exist.''
Sponsors, however, said the measure would put the force of law behind an existing FCC universal service access charge exemption for Internet service providers and prevent some local telephone companies from winning challenges to the exemption in court.
``The issue is not bogus,'' said Rep. W.J. ``Billy'' Tauzin, R-La. ``There are real lawyers litigating in the courts on this issue today.''
FCC spokeswoman Joy Howell repeated Tuesday that the agency has ``no intention of imposing access charges to the Internet. Congress has the prerogative ... and we respect that right.''
The measure, recommended to Congress by a majority of the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, is one of three bills being rushed through the House this month as part of the Republican ``E-Contract 2000'' agenda. The House last week passed a five-year extension of the current Internet tax moratorium and next week will begin moving a bill repealing the 3 percent excise tax on telephone service.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said the access charge measure would ``prevent a stopwatch from being placed on the Internet'' by ensuring that the FCC would never extend to the Internet the existing access charges on long-distance calls.
These charges, paid by long-distance carriers to local phone companies to connect their calls, partly support universal service in high-cost poor and rural areas. The costs are usually passed on by long-distance companies to their customers.
The legislation does not address the long-term problem of whether Internet service providers should eventually help provide this universal service by paying for their use of the local telephone network, particularly as more phone service migrates to the Internet. Some lawmakers said the bill wouldn't ban access charges on the Internet that pay for something other than universal service.
``This bill only does part of it,'' said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. ``We're going to protect the phone companies so they can make more profits.''
The bill is H.R. 1291.
On the Net: Congress: http://thomas.loc.gov