EFFORTS to pave America's information superhighway took a big step forward Wednesday with the announcement that the nation's most aggressive regional phone company is bidding for the nation's largest cable-television company.
The value of the sale could reach around $30 billion. It needs federal approval and will be closely examined by state and local regulators. But if the deal goes through, Tele-Communications Inc.'s vast network of cables and boxes and Bell Atlantic's switching and fiber-optic capabilities will put the new entity in a lead position to develop or deliver via one line a wide range of entertainment and interactive video and computer services to homes and businesses nationwide.
We hope the deal prods Congress and the FCC to give more thought to the superhighway's rules of the road. We say that with some trepidation: An unintended outcome of Congress's effort to rewrite cable-TV regulations has been an increase in rates for many people who were told that rates would fall under the new rules. Yet the vision driving technological advances and corporate acquisitions seems to be clearer than the regulatory vision needed to anticipate and adapt to these changes in ways that allow technologies to blossom while ensuring competition and adequate access.
Among the concerns: Will Bell Atlantic's customers, who have nowhere else to turn for local phone service, pay higher rates to underwrite the company's expansion? Will the size and reach of this purchase alone rule out effective competition within the evolving telecommunications industry later? As similar deals emerge (BellSouth has agreed in principle to buy a 22.5 percent stake in a cable company based in Austin, Texas), and especially as they include firms producing programs (TCI owns 23 percent of Turner Broadcasting), will a handful of companies control the type and availability of programming?
In Bell Atlantic's case, the answers may prove acceptable. But the sale is expected to accelerate, even define, the development of the information superhighway. It should not be allowed to define by default the rules of the road.