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Barton Bullish on Telecom Bill

Saying he is a pretty good poker player, House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) all but dared naysayers last week to bet against his ability to get a telecom-reform bill to the president’s desk this session.

Barton said the bill would be marked up (tweaked and amended) in subcommittee this week and in the full committee soon after the Easter recess, and that speaker Dennis Hastert had cleared floor time in May or June. A complementary Senate bill is targeted for a Senate Commerce Committee markup sometime after Easter as well. It will likely differ somewhat from the House bill, but it’s nothing that cannot be worked out in conference, Barton said.

The Barton bill creates a national video-franchise system that its backers say would make it easier for telephone companies and other new video and broadband providers to compete with cable.

The bill establishes a 10-year automatically renewing video franchise that includes a 5% franchise fee, retains localities’ authority over rights of way, and requires the provision of public-access channels and institutional networks.

Even the bill’s critics agree that some form of video-franchise reform will spur competition with cable and accelerate the rollout of high-speed broadband service, which is a priority for the administration, Congress and the FCC.

But critics say the House version of the bill released last week fails to adequately protect consumers from “redlining”—not serving less-profitable areas—or the Internet from being turned into “the broadband equivalent of gated communities.” Those issues were raised in a marathon hearing on the bill last week.

Telcos are pushing hard for the national franchise, as well as seeking reform through a parallel FCC inquiry into whether local-franchising authorities are impeding the rollout of cable competition. Telcos say, “Absolutely.” Cable says, “No way.”

In a roundtable with reporters last week, Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said that both the telco and cable industries are close to signing on to the House bill.

Calling the bill a “significant step forward,” National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow said his organization still prefers streamlining the existing local-franchising process. NCTA has problems with provisions it says would boost cable-franchise fees and codify FCC authority to enforce adjudicate complaints about discrimination in the provision of Internet and other services.

Bailing on the new version of the bill were ranking minority members John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), both of whom said they supported franchise reform that also protected the interests of consumers both rich and poor.

One of the key issues that came up repeatedly last week was “network neutrality.” When the FCC decided, and a court upheld the decision, not to require cable and telco companies to open their networks to independent ISPs, it also issued general network-neutrality guidelines supporting nondiscrimination in access. But it put no enforcement teeth behind the rules.

The Barton bill recognizes those principles and authorizes the FCC to hold national franchisees to them on a case-by-case basis. That means the FCC can adjudicate claims of discrimination in Internet service provision but has no authority to establish a regulation broadly mandating network neutrality.

Barton asked the representatives of trade groups to submit a written definition of “network neutrality,” saying that they had all provided different ones in their testimony last week.

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