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House E&C White Paper Cites FCC Gatekeeper Role Over Broadcasting

The government's role as gatekeeper is no more pronounced than in its regulation of broadcast licenses, says a briefing paper from the House Energy & Commerce Committee, this one on video programming.

It is the latest in the Republican leadership of the committee's series of white papers (the sixth) on communications policy, meant to provoke stakeholder input and provide some guidance on how that leadership views various key communications issues in its run-up to a planned remake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act starting next year.

The paper says that back when the FCC was created in the early part of the last century (1934), "the thinking was that a broadcast license essentially grants the licensee an exclusive right to a public soapbox, while denying such rights to others."

But in the interim, it says, "changes in the video market have outpaced changes in the regulations governing this area - a fact exacerbated by the FCC's failure to complete its required review and revision of the media ownership rules in 2010." It points to local ownership limits, national ownership limits and cross-ownership limits as rules that have been "outpaced."

The paper concedes the government's "gatekeeper" role over license renewals and assignments has been "considerably liberalized"  since 1934, including that licenses are rarely contested, but says it is still a factor weighed by potential market entrants, many of whom opt for disruption—over the top, for example—rather than taking on the barriers of legacy, government-regulated services.

It says media ownership limits continue to be a "significant barrier" for broadcasters who want to enter new markets or expand operations to meet that growing competition.

The white paper asks a number of questions, like whether the broadcast regs should be retained and how the over-the-top video services should be treated in any new incarnation of communications legislation, including what the consequences would be to innovation and competition if they are subjected to legacy MVPD rules.

The FCC is current planning to define some linear over-the-top video providers as MVPD's for the purposes of program access rules, part of a larger commission effort to boost competition to traditional video, as well as broadband deployment and adoption.