DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor



Telephone Company TV - (cont.)

April 6, 2006

The House Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee held markup sessions on the "Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006" yesterday and today. (see earlier article)

Tuesday's session (4/4/06) was just for committee members' opening remarks. These were basically the same as their remarks from the hearing last week, and certainly no more open to compromise.

Wednesday's session--the actual markup--was more productive, as amendments to the committee print were debated and voted either up or down (or withdrawn for further consideration). All of this will continue when the whole committee meets in a couple of weeks. That would be the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The bill is composed of four titles: I. National Cable Franchising, II. Enforcement of Broadband Policy Statement, III. VOIP/911, and IV. Municipal Provision of Services.

Title II concerns the Committee's goal of preserving "net neutrality," or keeping the internet free and democratic, and encouraging continued innovation and economic vitality, etc. Title III is about making sure that people who are adopting voice over internet protocol telephone service will still be able to call 911 if a burglar is breaking into their house or they are having a heart attack, etc. Title IV would prohibit state and local governments from blocking new providers of video services.

Title I is the primary subject of this report--the part of the draft legislation that would give cable service providers national franchises that would make negotiations with individual local governments all over the country unnecessary. By "cable service providers" we're talking about both the traditional cable companies as well as the new-entrant telephone companies. Of the latter, right now we're talking most specifically about Verizon and AT&T.

The subcommittee chairman (Fred Upton) introduced a "manager's" amendment, prepared mostly by the Republican leadership in consultation with willing Democrats. The manager's amendment consisted of clarifications to the existing Committee Print of the bill, in response to comments from other committee members. Substance was not generally affected.

One member remarked that the telephone companies "had pulled out all the stops to get the bill through the committee." She further cited a letter from AT&T that asserted that they would not be subject to cable laws. She said that was absurd.

Both Republicans and Democrats agreed that AT&T would of course be bound by laws applying to cable TV service providers if they indeed started to provide cable TV services. Lengthy debate, nevertheless, ensued on how to spell that out in the legislation.

Joe Barton told a folksy story about when he was 13 and wanted to go to a sweetie's birthday party instead of a stuffy family reunion. His father laid down the law. He was apparently likening his father to Congress and his boyhood self to AT&T.

What the Democrats apparently recognized was that the junior Barton didn't have a small army of lawyers to litigate the issue for years on end. Which was their point about AT&T.

The manager's amendment was accepted and a train of single-purpose amendments followed from the peanut gallery.

Small and medium telephone companies in rural areas (mostly) would be allowed to pool their resources to buy equipment so each could provide television services in their own areas.

Not adopted was an amendment to require that new entrants build-out their service area to extend to the whole area served by the incumbent cable company.

Because the national franchise rules would remove any negotiating leverage from local cable franchising authorities, the subcommittee decided that those local authorities could unilaterally set the fee they would charge the new cable services company (up to 5% of gross revenues).

The FCC would now be required to prepare an annual report on the effects of the bill (deployment rate of new services, incumbent cable company reactions, changes in cable TV rates, etc). This provision subject to further discussion.

Another proposed amendment would give local authorities power to resolve comsumer complaints concerning the national franchises. This provision will get further work before full committee consideration.

A 1992 law required that cable companies sell their programming to the new (at that time) satellite companies (DirecTV, etc) if the programming was distributed by the big cable companies to local cable distributors via satellite. But now much of that programming is distributed via land-based networks. Some committee members wanted the 1992 "loophole" changed so that cable-produced programming (specifically mentioned was regional sports programming from the Comcast Sport Network) could not be withheld from other local cable TV service providers (mostly in rural areas).

The Republican leadership decided in favor of protecting Comcast's advantage and depriving those poor rural shmucks of their regional basketball games. Life is a box of chocolates, I guess.

Another amendment that would have directed the FCC to reestablish video captioning for the hearing-impaired will be reconsidered later. As was another amendment that would have established a system by which consumer complaints could be resolved.

The subcommittee adopted an amendment that would impose indecency rules on cable TV programming similar to the rules that now apply to broadcast TV programming. This amendment was not well developed and will likely evolve as the bill makes its way through Congress. The FCC censors' empire is growing.

An amendment was offered that would encourage the FCC to finally publish public interest requirements rules for digital TV broadcasts (these exist for analog broadcasts). No agreement was reached and the amendment will be further considered.

Local public hearings would now be mandated when a franchise license comes up for renewal.

Stay tuned for the next step. Your government in action. . .