GOP in Control of Telecom-Law Overhaul

At least one thing is clear from Tuesday’s election results: Republicans on Capitol Hill will control any changes in telecommunications law for the next two years.

According to press accounts, Republicans padded their majorities in both the House and Senate Tuesday, retaining control of key committees where any changes in cable and telecommunications law would originate.

That should be good news for cable companies, which have counted on Capitol Hill Republicans to oppose rate reregulation, to go easy on cable mergers and to permit MSOs to exclude competing Internet-service providers from their high-speed-data networks.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is expected to retain his chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Barton -- an opponent of mandatory cable carriage of local TV stations -- has called for ending the digital-TV transition Dec. 31, 2006, which clashes with a Federal Communications Commission plan that would end it Dec. 31, 2008.

Barton has also called for revamping the Telecommunications Act of 1996, saying that a new law was needed to take into account the convergence of voice, video and data over the Internet and to accommodate strains on the subsidy program to keep local phone service affordable in rural America.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is expected to take command of the Senate Commerce Committee from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who won re-election Tuesday night. McCain had to yield the gavel due to GOP Senate rules that impose term limits on committee chairmen.

McCain’s loss of power is a political gain for the cable industry. McCain has badgered MSOs about rising consumer rates and resistance to offering consumers cable channels on an a la carte basis.

Months ago, Stevens said writing a new telecommunications law was a priority. Affordable rural phone rates have been a Stevens cause for decades. He is troubled that if voice traffic migrates to the Internet and private Internet-protocol networks and providers do not have to contribute to the phone-subsidy program, local phone rates will rise in his state -- a fear shared by many Senate lawmakers from states with large rural profiles.

Even though key lawmakers say they want to pass a new law, such a task has never been easy. It took more than one decade for warring industry factions to work with Congress to produce the compromise telecommunications bill President Clinton signed in early 1996.

The Senate next year won’t include Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), who is retiring after 38 years in office. Earlier in the year, Hollings won Senate approval of a bill designed to require cable operators to ban the transmission of most violent programs until after 10 p.m. The bill is not expected to pass when Congress returns for a lame-duck session next week.