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Hill Ponders Regulating Convergence

A House Telecommunications Subcommittee hearing on Internet-protocol-delivered video and data Tuesday provided a foreshadowing of the difficulty Congress is going to have in rewriting the 1996 Communications Act.

At the hearing, representatives of cable, phone, and tech companies talked of the need for coming up with consistent ways to regulate, or alternately deregulate, broadband services over the internet and otherwise.

That need arises as they all begin delivering a host of services--Video, voice, data--currently under very different regulatory regimes that did not anticipate the level of convergence.

Representatives from Comcast, Verizon and SBC all seemed to agree that the local franchising process needs to become more national. For example, said Verizon President Robert Ingalls, the company had to negotiate with something like 250 separate authorities to set up service in Philadelphia.

Not surprisingly, the cable industry wants to make sure that telcos are not given a pass on legacy regulations like protecting rights of way, public access requirements, and franchise fees, that apply to cable, though some deregulatory revisiting of those would work, too, cable execs said.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) grilled SBC over the fact that it was targeting high-end customers for its roll-out of advanced IP services, while cable companies were required by franchise agreements to serve the high and low end (both of which "we call constituents," he added).

SBC's Lea Ann Champion countered that the company's roll-out strategy was intended to build the business and increase investment--which she pegged at $4 billion through 2007-- and that SBC was looking into alternate ways to reach those customers in the interim, but Markey was not appeased.

"You're offering light speed for the well off and snail speed for the others," he said.

Broadcasting did not get a lot of hearing time--there was some sparring over must-carry and retrans rules-- but Decisionmark President and CEO Jack Perry demonstrated a technology that he argued could put local broadcasters squarely in the broadband space.

He pitched the company's Air-to-Web broadcast-replication mechanism for delivering TV content over the Internet. It replicates the market contours of a station, and thus preserves program exclusivity. Decisionmark currently helps satellite companies determine what local broadcaster signals they can deliver where.

Illinois Republican John Shimkus summed up the tenor of the hearing, asking "How do we restructure the FCC to meet the new technological age. how do we justify different regulatory schemes when you are all competing in broadband."