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New Telco Rules Would Get 4-Year Review

The House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee held a marathon hearing Wednesday on a discussion draft of a bill to update the 1996 Telecommunications Act to establish rules of the road for broadband and IP services, including requiring the FCC to kick the tires on the rules every four years.

The draft, which differs from an earlier incarnation, would would require the FCC to review the new rules every four years, and allow it to revoke long-standing video carriage requirements like must-carry and retransmission consent.

Commerce Committee Joe Barton (R-Tex.) , pointing to the four hearings that have already been held and the dozens of witnesses (there were 15 more Wednesday), said it was "time to legislate."

Ed Markey (D-Mass.) who was not happy with some of the changes, said he hoped there would be more hearings.

The bill will govern delivery of broadband voice, video, and data.

Representing the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Insight President Michael Wilner said the bill as currently drafted is overregulatory and treats like services differently based on technological differences.

Wilner said the bill gives "favorable regulatory treatment" to broadband video and that the government "should not be in the business of picking technology winners and losers."

He also said the bill seems to fly in the face of the Supreme Court's Brand X decision by appearing to "impose forced access obligations on Internet providers and to effectively regulate the Internet as never before through a "net neutrality" requirement.

"Anyone unhappy with the terms of their business deal with a broadband provider would inevitably race to the FCC or the courthouse," he said,

Broadcasters had their own problems with the draft.

James Yager, CEO of Barrington Broadcasting, was particularly troubled by a provision that the FCC could review and roll back any new rules every four years. While the idea behind that is to allow the rules to better keep up with the technology, Yager asked:

"Why do laws like must-carry, that Congress enacted in 1992, that have been reaffirmed not once but twice by the Supreme Court, and that have benefited millions of viewers suddenly need to be defended every four years?

He said that would "only inject uncertainty into the market and unduly harm viewers."

Barrington argued for applying must-carry/retransmission consent model to telcos and other new multichannel providers. "As Congress develops the ground rules for I-P video, the policies that promote localism today should also govern the relationship between broadcasters and video over broadband providers."

A first draft of the bill was released last month which gives broadband video providers a streamlined franchise process.

Telcos and others would be able to bypass individual franchise negotiations and start  video service in a market subject to the same conditions of service spelled out for cable, and subject to a  franchising fee of 5% of gross revenues.

The draft bill establishes the FCC's regulatory control, or lack of it, over broadband internet transmission services (BITS), and voice over internet protocol (VOIP), as well as broadband video service.

But there were changes to the bill that Ranking Commerce Committee member John Dingell was not happy with, including making the rules revocable by the FCC, and what he saw as changes to basic video carriage requirements.

"Requirements that are statutory today--including must carry, retransmission consent, program access, closed captioning, and consumer electronics compatibility and retail availability--are relegated under the draft bill to waivable FCC regulations subject to a four-year review that could result in their elimination," he said.  "Does this Committee intend to cede its judgment over television policy to the whims of the FCC?"