Video Franchising – A La Carte Blanche
Video Franchising – A La Carte Blanche
Video Franchising – A La Carte Blanche

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    The new version of the Senate telecom bill is 287 pages, although to be sure the first 68 are the text of the House bill all crossed out, to be replaced by Senate text. No question, there's still a lot left. The chief sponsor, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), has talked of two separate strategies to get something passed in what's left of this legislative year.

    Plan A is to find 60 votes to bring the massive bill to the Senate floor. With 60 votes, he puts off the possibility of a filibuster on the question whether the bill should even be brought up for debate. However, even if the bill is debated, there are many other legislative hurdles, including the possibilities of long debates over Net Neutrality and other issues.

    Plan B is to substitute the massive bill with a slimmed-down version concentrating on a couple of issues such as universal service and the streamlined video franchising. Universal service is dear to Stevens' heart because it supports telephone companies with high costs, like those in Alaska. The telephone companies want the expedited video franchising to save them millions in regulatory fees.

    There is a lot to be slimmed down in this bill. It's got a four-page table of contents, covering 14 major sections (titles), and dozens of smaller pieces, subtitles, etc. The topics range from allowing for cheaper phone calls for armed forces personnel abroad to establishing an Office of Indian Affairs in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There are at least three studies on broadband progress, with one unhelpfully keeping the data confidential.

    Streamlined video franchising part, in principle, would create more competition for cable by giving the telephone companies an easier way to offer cable. In principle, the competition could lead to lower prices. But there's a huge gap between the principle and the reality, not only in the Senate bill but in the House bill as well.

    The Senate version of the bill, like its House counterpart, has no guarantees that the new video service will be offered anywhere in a franchise area. In fact, the Senate bill, even more than the House version, provides a roadmap to how such service couldn't be offered.

    According to the Senate bill, “A video service provider may not deny access to its video service to any group of potential residential video service subscribers because of the income, race, or religion of that group.” That's all that stands in the way of stopping a telephone company from cherry-picking a franchise area. But it gets better, because the bill then helpfully provides the reasons for which access may be denied: “It is not a violation… if video service is denied because technical feasibility, commercial feasibility, operational limitations, or physical barriers preclude the effective provision of video service.”

    Should a consumer actually find that service isn't being provided within the restrictive boundaries of the bill, the consumer then has another hurdle. The complaint has to be filed with the state attorney general, who then decides whether there's enough merit to take the complaint to court. And if the state attorney general finds enough merit to take the case to court, and if a miracle occurs and the telephone company is found to have been picking off the best parts of a franchise area, the Senate bill is prepared for that eventuality because: “Nothing in this section authorizes the use of quotas, goals, or timetables as a remedy.”

    Let us review: The Senate bill provides the telephone companies with the ways they can get around the already-weak language preventing discrimination, then limits the remedies. And competition and lower prices is supposed to result from this? Not likely.

    The House version of the bill isn't any better. It simply provides: “A cable operator with a national franchise under this section to provide cable service in a franchise area shall not deny access to its cable service to any group of potential residential cable service subscribers in such franchise area because of the income of that group.” And what reasons can be used to deny service? Start with the ones in the Senate bill, and then add your own.

    Of course, the other major flaw with the streamlined video franchising is that that Net Neutrality is missing. Remember, the same network from the telephone companies that carries video also carries the Internet. While we like the ability of telephone companies to have incentives to deploy advanced technology, deployment should be done correctly, and keeping the Internet open and free is the correct way to do it.

    That the bills also starve local public access channels and usurp local authority are yet other reasons why the burden will be heavy to carry this legislation across the finish line this year.