Washington NotebookTelcos OK'd for national vid regsHouse approves bill that bypasses local franchise rules
By Brooks Boliek The Hollywood Reporter
June 09, 2006
WASHINGTON -- The big telephone companies Thursday rang up a legislative victory in their effort to get into the video business when the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation allowing them to bypass local government franchise requirements.
On a 321-101 vote, the House approved the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act that sets a national video franchise for phone companies.
"Today, there are thousands of local franchising authorities, and each may impose disparate restrictions on the provision of cable service in its specific franchising area," House Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said. "The requirement to negotiate such local franchises and the patchwork of obligations local franchising authorities impose are hindering the deployment of advanced broadband networks that will bring increasingly innovative and competitive services to all of our constituents."
Overall, the bill sets a 10-year, automatically renewing national video franchise for phone companies. In territories the phone companies enter, the cable companies will come under the same federal franchise rather than the local one under which they currently operate. The cities would be paid a fee that reached 6% of gross revenue either way.
While the bill's supporters claimed the legislation will lower the price for video programming by bringing in a new competitor, its opponents called the measure a corporate giveaway, saying it gives a free ride to such big network operators as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the Commerce Committee's senior Democrat, called it a "bad bill" that would do nothing but advance the "cause of special and moneyed interests," allowing them to "cut a fat hog."
The legislation has become a lightning rod over the issue known as "network neutrality." Proponents of the concept, mostly Democrats, contend that the government should prevent the network companies from favoring one person or companies' programming or data over another. They are backed by many of the nation's Internet and high-tech companies including Google, Amazon and Microsoft.
Opponents of the idea, mostly Republicans, contend that a network neutrality requirement is an unnecessary government intrusion. They are backed by the big network companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.
A network neutrality amendment written by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., was defeated, but the issue sparked lively debate.
"Unless we preserve network neutrality the (Internet's) basic DNA will be subject to mutation," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash. "Just as all men are created equal, all bits are created equal, and the Markey amendment treats all bits equally."
But the COPE bill sponsors said the amendment was not necessary because the legislation gives the FCC authority to enforce complaints against the network providers. The legislation, however, prevents the commission from writing network neutrality regulations.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. "There are protections in the bill that preserve those rights. There's no evidence of these problems."
Upton's view won the day as Markey's amendment went down 269-152.
The focus now shifts to the Senate, where Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is pushing a different version of the legislation.
Stevens said Wednesday that he expected to make some changes to his version of the bill, which is much broader than the House legislation. His legislation currently only directs the FCC to study the issue.
"Basically we're defining what the FCC can do for consumers to ensure network neutrality," he said. "As far as the battle between the large entities and industries, they should fight their own battle."
Despite the House vote and Stevens' desires, the fate of the legislation is still up in the air. Getting a vote in the full Senate and ironing out the differences in the two bills in the short time left in this Congress remains a tall order in an election year.
The White House gave the legislation a boost, however, as it issued a statement in general support of the bill.
According to a statement of administration policy issued by the Office of Management and Budget, "The administration strongly supports efforts to promote competition in both video and voice markets and therefore supports this bill's language on video franchising."
It also sided with opponents of the a network neutrality requirement.
"The administration believes the FCC currently has sufficient authority to address potential abuses in the marketplace," the statement said. "Creating a new legislative framework for regulation in this area is premature."http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr..._id=1002650934