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Senate Bill Eases Telco Entry

Telecom-reform/video-franchising legislation passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee June 28 with several amendments but without strong network-neutrality language.

As currently passed, the bill would give telcos an easier path to video franchises. It would also give cable a streamlined franchise agreement and lift rate regulation on the basic tier once it has competition, without the build-out requirements it has been subject to.

The bill would also give the FCC the power to require new broadcast-flag—radio and TV—digital-content-protection technology that an earlier court decision had denied.

Strong network-neutrality language didn't make it into the bill. Net neutrality is a simple term to describe a complex concept that all players on the Internet should be treated equally, with no one company able to buy—or charge for—more access.

The issue pits telecommunications companies against Internet-content giants. Proponents will press the issue again if the bill comes up for floor vote. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) may not get the 60 votes he needs to bring it to the floor and overcome a filibuster. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) doesn't think Stevens can get the votes, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has put a hold on the bill, which is essentially a signal he plans to filibuster.

But various other amendments were slipped into the bill in the days leading up to the June 28 vote. There is, for example, the one-pager from Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) that would potentially take much of the sting out of the FCC's new, larger indecency fines.

His amendment would indemnify most network affiliates—which means most commercial stations—from indecency fines for network programming they had not reviewed or had no warning about. The amendment arguably would cover Janet Jackson's breast, Bono's f-word and perhaps the Without a Trace fine as well.

“If the networks want to air questionable programming, they should be responsible for that choice,” Nelson said in a statement accompanying the amendment.

Dan Iett, director of corporate and government Affairs, for anti-indecency group Parents Television Council, considers the amendment well-intentioned and supports giving stations more power to preview and preempt. But he says it also has “the potential to gut” the recently passed law boosting indecency fines. “What's to prevent stations from never prescreening anything,” thereby “inoculating themselves from a fine?” he asks.

If stations got a pass, he says, the networks should have to pay the fine.

Another amendment, from vocal media-consolidation critic Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), would give FCC Democrats a victory they might not have won at the Republican-controlled commission. It would require the FCC to put any new ownership rules out for public comment before they vote on them. Last month, the commission began the process of rewriting the deregulatory rules in part to allow ownership of more TV stations in a market, as well as to lift the ban on TV/newspaper crossownership.

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