Bipartisan Franchise Bill Gets Partisan

It looks like there could be a House hearing on a national video franchising bill next week--one source says Thursday--with a markup (where bills are debated, amended or rewritten) likely the following week.

The bill would make it easier for telephone companies like Verizon and AT&T to offer video and broadband Internet service in competition to cable and satellite by helping them bypass often-contentious local franchise negotiations.

In the face of heavy pressure from cable, a bipartisan version of the bill that Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) had worked out with Democrats including ranking committee members John Dingell and Ed Markey, has morphed into a Republican-backed version.

Gone, say sources--a draft of the bill has not been circulated--is a provision that would not have allowed incumbent cable operators to seek a similar national franchise until the new entrant had penetrated 15% of households in a market, and one that would have instituted price controls by requiring incumbents to apply price cuts to their entire system, not just in the areas where incumbents might offer lower prices.

There remains a "net neutrality" provision preventing discrimination in the provision of Internet access service. Essentially it would codify neutrality principles offered as guidance by the FCC as part of their decision not to require either cable or telco networks to provide nondiscriminatory access to independent Internet service providers.

Earlier this  week, National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow, who had called the bipartisan bill a big step in the wrong direction, suggested that things were looking up and said that the absence of the 15% and uniform pricing provisions would make it a cable-friendlier bill. NCTA also backs franchise reform, Says McSlarrow, so long as it applies to both incumbents and new entrants eqitably.

The Senate Commerce Committee is still hoping to get its version of a telcom reform bill marked up and passed this session as well, though there is not much time before legislators get into campaign mode for the November election.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.