Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Would Senate bill liberate cable sports but squash the Internet?

When you’re the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and you’ve just introduced the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in a decade, you can clearly expect prompt action.

Just 16 days ago, Sen. Ted Stevens (R., Alaska) introduced S. 2686 — formally, the “Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006.” (To read the 135-page bill, click here.)

Tomorrow, his committee begins the first of two hearings on the bill — which Stevens immediately relabeled “the Telecommunications Act of 2006.”

One week later comes the next hearing. Two weeks after that, on June 8, markup is scheduled. In other words, a near-finished draft of this complex, controversial legislation could reach the Senate floor in less than a month.

It’s almost an understatement to say that after a decade of revolutionary change in telecom technology and business strategies, it's time to address serious concerns that have arisen since Congress passed its even-more-ambitious predecessor, the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Stevens deserves credit for taking a stab at some of the biggest, including the Baby Bells' push for permission to bypass local-franchising processes so they can more quickly introduce pay-television service that competes with cable and satellite companies. The vast majority of cable customers would welcome any competition, but the changes — the first subject at tomorrow's hearing — are bitterly and vocally opposed by the cable industry and its allies.

Other big devils lurk in the bill's details. Here’s a quick preview on two key issues that aren't on tomorrow's agenda and that may get short shrift unless consumers speak up. One is of national interest; the other seems to particularly affect Philadelphia residents of Comcast Country:

* Net neutrality. Despite the urgings of Democrats such as Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the bill’s co-sponsor and the committee’s minority chairman, S. 2686 does nothing to guarantee against what many consumer advocates and technologists fear: that the broadband Internet will be duopolized by Big Cable and Big Telecom, which will charge high prices and squeeze out competition from companies that want to provide alternative services over networks that the cable and phone companies control.

* Comcast’s stranglehold over most of Philadelphia’s local sports telecasts, which it has achieved because of a 1992 law that allows it to withhold Comcast SportsNet from competitors — a tactic Comcast hasn't employed elsewhere but that other cable companies are starting to use. Stevens’ bill, as drafted, would stop new attempts to monopolize local sports and hinder competition by relying on what's known as the “terrestrial loophole.” But it would grandfather in contracts in place before July 1, 2003, and is at best ambiguous about what happens when they run out. (When were the current contracts signed that allow Comcast to withhold most Phillies, Flyers and Sixers' telecasts? When do they expire? Comcast won't disclose the terms of its SportsNet agreements, says spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick. About S. 2686, all he'll say is this: "Chairman Stevens and co-Chairman Inouye have put a broad legislative proposal on the table, and we are studying their bill, including the provisions related to sports and video content.")

Stevens calls the bill “a working draft intended to stimulate discussion," and says he "is open for comments and suggestions for change.” (You can offer your comments to Stevens via the Web by clicking here.)

Inouye says it needs major changes — especially when it comes to net neutrality. (Got ideas? Contact Inouye by clicking here.)

If you want more information on the growing campaign by consumer groups, media-rights advocates and technologists to persuade Congress to adopt net-neutrality standards, visit the Web site of the Save the Internet coalition.

Meanwhile, all I can say is stay tuned. I’ll try to keep you posted.


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