A lot of attention will be paid on the Hill to broadband, privacy and satellite issues and less will be spent on content issues, at least until the Supreme Court decides Fox's profanity appeal. Those were some signals from Capitol Hill this week as key congressional staffers briefed cable operators on their agendas.
Reauthorizing satellite TV's distant signal compulsory license is a top priority because it expires at the end of the year, staffers from the House Energy & Commerce and Senate Commerce committees agreed during a panel session at The Cable Show Wednesday.
House Communications, Technology & Internet Subcommittee chairman Rick Boucher has signaled he wants the compulsory license bill to be as narrow as possible. Although he says that will likely include some fix to the license to allow satellite operators to import signals from adjacent markets where those markets cross state lines, a source says that will probably not include extending that change to other multichannel video providers including cable. It will also likely include requiring satellite carriage of local stations in all 210 markets.
Making a compulsory license bill broader could open it up to whatever other cable-related issues - retransmission-consent reform, for example -- that other legislators wanted to ornament the bill with.
Unlike five years ago, when Congress had more than a year to work the legislation, it needs to do it in about nine months.
On the House Commerce side, all the action appears to be at the subcommittee level. "The first two big issues that the committee is going to address are not in the area of communications and technology," said Roger Sherman, advisor to Commerce chairman Henry Waxman (D.-Calif.).
That's because the full committee will have its hands full trying to push through a climate bill by Memorial Day and healthcare reform by the August recess.
Boucher's subcommittee has put reform of universal service and privacy protection at the top of the list, along with satellite reform and oversight of the broadband grant money in the stimulus package, confirming the lineup Boucher outlined to Multichannel News last week.
He also said the subcommittee may take a look at ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which has delayed until December its plan to expand the number of top-level domain names.
Asked by moderator Rachel Welch, of Time Warner, if it was time to take another look at retransmission consent, the answer appeared to be no, at least from the one staffer willing to address it.
Neil Fried counsels ranking Republicans on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Joe Barton (R.-Tex.), and the Communications, Technology & Internet Subcommittee ranking member Cliff Stearns (R.-Fla.). He said Barton felt retransmission consent was something the marketplace seemed to be dealing with, but that it would work better if cable and satellite operators had the right to withhold distribution of the TV signal, just as the TV station has the right to deny it. (Barton is also, not surprisingly, an opponent of must carry).
He said the government should probably not be mandating sports programming carriage, either, but allow that to be a marketplace decision.
Neither Sherman nor Jessica Rosenworcel, adviser to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D.-W. Va.), was willing to weigh in.
Adam Thierer, from the Progress and Freedom Foundation, asked whether Rockefeller would be looking to regulate cable or satellite violence, given his interest in the subject.
Rosenworcel said that TV was a powerful force, and when used for good could enlighten and entertain, but when "used for ill" can coarsen the culture and present disturbing issues to kids.
But that said, she said the next "inflection" point for that concern would not come until after the Supreme Court decides the Fox case.
Rosenworcel said cyber-security "was an important issue for the chairman." He has just introduced a bill on the subject with Sen. Olympia Snowe (D.-Maine) that would extend government cyber-security protections to key private-sector infrastructure, including communications.
And while some Obama advisors have suggested there is unlikely to be major top-down FCC reform, it looks like some reform is on the table in the Senate.
"We also hope to, in short order, have some more discussions about FCC reform," she said. They would be "more discussions" because communications subcommittee chairman Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) told reporters Tuesday night that he had been discussing the subject earlier in the day.
There will also be broadband oversight and DTV oversight hearings on the Senate side sometime in May, according to Kerry, as well as a satellite reauthorization hearing.
Rosenworcel said they hoped to have a "full complement" of FCC commissioners confirmed "fairly soon, and in short order will deal with the confirmations of both Julius Genachowski (FCC chairman) and Larry Strickling (head of NTIA).
Christine Kurth, who advises Senate Commerce ranking member Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R.-Tex.), said she was also looking for confirmations quickly. There are two openings after former chairman Kevin Martin and commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate left. Jonathan Adelstein will be exiting, too. The administration wants him to run the Rural Utilities Service in the Department of Agriculture, which will work with the FCC and NTIA to dole out broadband stimulus funds.
Neil Fried, who counsels ranking Republicans on the House Energy & Commerce Committee Joe Barton (R-TX) and Communications, Technology & Internet Subcommittee ranking member Cliff Stearns (R-FL), said they have outlined their preference for targeting un-served markets first.
"We should focus on those that have nothing before those that have some," said Fried.
He also said the money -- $7.2 billion between NTIA and RUS -- should first go to states that have already done broadband mapping, pointing out that the federal government's mapping won't be completed by the time the grants need to start going out the door. The idea he said is to target the money, not waste it.
He said if money does go to underserved areas, it should be on the demand side rather than the supply. "We know that if it is underserved, someone is there providing service. By looking at demand you can increase the economic case for faster or more service from the providers that are already there."
Sherman said that Waxman does not agree that the statute focuses on un-served areas. "I think everybody agrees that we want to make sure the money is spent efficiently and wisely," he said.
Sherman said he was confident that NTIA and RUS were already doing "all the right things," and said Waxman was encouraged by their coordination and transparency.
Both Fried and Kurth said that the grants needed to be "competitively neutral," so the government doesn't put its thumb on the scale.
Although it did not come up in the questioning, Kerry told reporters this week that network neutrality would also be on the docket. While he did not say whether that meant legislation, he did remind the reporters he had supported such legislation in the past.