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National Franchise Bill Passes Subcommittee

By a vote of 27 to 4, the House Telecommunications Subcommittee Wednesday passed a national video franchising bill following a seven-hour markup.

The bill will help telcos get into video service and, as amended help cable get into the phone business.

The bill , which establishes a 10-year, automatically renewing national video franchise--something the Bells have been pushing hard for,  will now be marked up in full committee following next week's spring recess, where the issues of Internet access and serving both rich and poor customers will likely be debated.

National Cable Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow called the bill an improvement over a version two weeks ago and a vast improvement over one circulated six months ago.Amendments that would have mandated network neutrality--no network discrimination in the provision of Internet access or services--and that would have set a government standard for building out networks to subscribers were defeated in the subcommittee by fairly wide margins.

The Senate is working on its own version of a telecommunications reform bill, which will have to be reconciled with this one. The Senate plans to begin marking up its bill after the spring break.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton has said he has the votes to pass the bill. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has come out in support of the bill and has slated time for a floor vote.

If the Senate bill differs in key ways, there could be difficutly reconciling the two. One key way could be extending the Universal Service Fund to broadband service.

The fund, which underwrites service to poorer and rural areas, is currently paid into by phone service providers, including cable voice service providers.

The Senate Commerce Committee version will likely try to add broadband to the services that have to pay into the fund as a way to help spur the rollout of high-speed Internet to rural areas.

It is an issue near and dear to the heart of Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, who represents Alaska where, as more than one Senator has pointed out, there is "a lot of dirt between light bulbs."