Bill on Video Franchises Introduced
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) yesterday introduced legislation that would make it easier for phone companies to offer video programming, but it faces a tough fight.
The nation's largest telephone companies, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., have been pressing lawmakers to streamline the laborious process of getting local franchises from thousands of municipalities to offer video over new, high-speed networks.
The Stevens bill would still require phone companies to seek approvals from local authorities but would impose a "shot clock" on the process, requiring municipalities to act on requests within 30 days. If they fail to act, a franchise is automatically granted with strict guidelines on the fees and other terms.
In contrast, a House bill creates a national franchising process, relieving phone companies of the obligation to go to each municipality for permission.
Regulatory analysts said they thought there was a less than 50-50 chance of telecom legislation becoming law this year because of the range of issues addressed by the Senate bill, the potential difficulty of reconciling it with the narrower House version passed last week and the short legislative calendar ahead of the November midterm elections.
The two versions also differ on two major issues: payments into a fund that guarantees universal telephone service and "net neutrality" provisions to address whether phone and cable companies may discriminate against the traffic of rivals on their networks.
While the House bill is silent on the issue of universal service, the Senate bill would require all telecommunications providers -- including those offering cable modem service and voice over Internet protocol phone service -- to pay into the fund.
On net neutrality, the Senate bill merely requires the Federal Communications Commission to do an annual study on the flow of information over the Internet and make recommendations. Its stance was weaker than the House bill, which itself did not go far enough for net neutrality proponents.
The Stevens bill also has provisions touching on municipal broadband networks, first-responder communications, regional sports networks, child pornography and consumer education about the transition to digital TV broadcasts.
While he co-sponsored the Stevens bill, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), the committee's ranking minority member, said he had "numerous, substantive objections" to the legislation.
"We cannot ignore concerns about the potential for discrimination by network operators, but the draft appears to do just that by failing to create enforceable protections that will ensure network neutrality," Inouye said in a statement.
Paul L. Glenchur, who tracks telecom regulatory developments for the Stanford Washington Research Group, said it will be tough to get a law enacted this year.
"There are plenty of things working against it, but I think people dismiss the notion that this could actually pass at their peril," he said.