Boucher: Three Telecom Issues To Rule Early Debate

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Rick Boucher (D-Va.), House Energy & Commerce Committee member and co-chair of its subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, says three telecom issues will dominate the early debate in the new Congress, topped by network neutrality but including "encouraging broadband providers--perhaps requiring them--to offer standalone DSL."

He also said a merger between DirecTV and EchoStar might make sense, while a merger between XM and Sirius satellite radio would probably have to be pitched as a hardship case to overcome antitrust issues. He would not comment on the appropriateness of any possible merger

Boucher weighed in on those and other issues in an interview for cable net C-SPAN's Communicators series, which is scheduled to air over the weekend.

Asked whether emphasizing standalone DSL was a backdoor route to rate regulation, Boucher said he didn't see it that way. "I think what we would probably do is specify to the FCC that standalone broadband is the rule. They can publish regulations that entail exactly how its to be implemented. There has to be some kind of price standard, but it doesn't have to be price regulation."

Instead, for example, he said it could be a mandate that DSL is offered at the same price as it is offered by similar companies: "There are standards that would not get the FCC into rate regulation."

The other two issues on the front burner? Network neutrality and local governments offering competitive telecommunications services.

On the issue of network neutrality, which he called his first priority, Boucher said he opposed a two-lane model of the Internet which could put competing video-streaming services at a disadvantage depending on if you were on the slow lane or the fast lane, for which networks would charge more. He said that "places innovation at risk."

AT&T/BellSouth agreed to two years under a network-neutrality regime in order to get a politically deadlocked FCC to approve the merger, but Boucher said that condition, much praised by network-neutrality backers as a big victory, did not obviate the need for a bill mandating network neutrality.

But the Congressman also said he is not "at all concerned" about any anticompetitive effects of the AT&T/BellSouth merger.

Not only does he not think it creates "unhealthy market power," but he says that it may create a viable competitor to cable in multichannel video.

Boucher said that he thought the February 2009 hard date for the switch to digital TV will hold, but he said that the $1.5 billion to subsidize digital-to-analog converter boxes was too little and that he thinks, "at the end of the day," there will be a means test for those boxes, though he says that if there isn't a means test, "that's alright, too."

Boucher said he saw a robust future for satellite TV, which he said is a great and comparable alternative to cable for rural areas. He also said satellite companies will need to offer broadband and do so "aggressively and affordably."

After avowing that he wasn't saying satellite was better than cable, he gave the satellite industry a plug, saying "the service is excellent, the signals are good, the quality of the signals is superior, and, typically, the pricing is, if anything, a bit more attractive than cable."

What about a merger between DirecTV and Echostar? "This is a case where the merger of the two providers might actually make sense," he said. 

Boucher says the multichannel video market is about to get very competitive with telco entry: "I think that if a merger between these two entities were presented today and the market were judged, not just as satellite providers taken in isolation but as multichannel video providers taken as a whole, including cable and telco, the analysis at Justice and the FCC on competition grounds could be very different."