House Votes to Ease Cable TV Licensing for Phone Companies

By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006

The House of Representatives yesterday passed a bill making it easier for phone companies to offer video programming, bringing consumers a step closer to having more choices for their cable TV service.

The bill, which passed by a 321 to 101 vote, would allow companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. to get television franchises by applying to the Federal Communications Commission rather than by negotiating them one by one with thousands of municipalities.

The vote, a defeat for the cable industry, shifts attention to the Senate, where telecom analysts believe it will be harder to pass similar legislation this year.

"We think it's going to be a problem getting it out of the Senate. It's certainly possible, but we think it's more likely going to be tied up there," said Blair Levin, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Co.

The House bill would allow new video providers to obtain cable TV franchises 30 days after they file a request with the FCC. Currently, it can take months to negotiate franchises with municipalities.

Critics of the bill include cities and other localities, which resent the loss of control over the franchising process, as well as "net neutrality" proponents, who argue that the measure does not go far enough to preserve consumers' ability to get whatever content they want over the Internet.

"Net neutrality" advocates believe that phone and cable companies should be barred from blocking, slowing down or otherwise discriminating against the Internet content that flows over their networks. They fear network owners will cut deals to give some content providers priority delivery, putting those who don't pay for this at a disadvantage.

Phone and cable companies say they will not block Web sites but should be allowed to manage their networks -- which handle an ever-increasing amount of traffic -- and to charge more to those who want guaranteed fast delivery.

The House rejected by a vote of 152 to 269 an amendment sponsored by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) that would have required phone and cable companies to run their networks in a "nondiscriminatory" manner.

Instead, lawmakers adopted a weaker provision that would seek full access to content for consumers but would not explicitly forbid network owners from giving some content favorable or unfavorable treatment. The provision also bars the FCC from writing detailed rules to enforce "net neutrality."

"The telephone companies have made clear that they can create a fast lane that will require extra payments and a slow lane for everyone else who can't afford it. That is a fundamental change in the history of the Internet, and it will adversely affect millions of Internet users across our country," Markey said in an interview before his amendment was voted down.

During the debate, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said the bill sought to "strike the right balance between ensuring that the public Internet remains an open, vibrant marketplace and ensuring that Congress does not hand the FCC a blank check to regulate Internet services.

"We don't need anybody to be the first secretary of the Internet," he added.

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