Ensign Intros Franchise-Buster Bill

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Sen. John Ensign Wednesday introduced sweeping and controversial legislation that would eliminate the need for cable, telephone company, or any other pay-TV provider to obtain local or state franchises.

Existing cable franchises also would be eliminated under his bill, which he said is designed to "update the nation’s telecommunications laws and increase choices for consumers."

Ensign unveiled his Broadband Consumer Choice Act of 2005 at a Capitol Hill press conference. “It is time to restore America’s status as a leader in the field of global communication technology and to improve burdensome and outdated government regulations for the benefit of consumers nationwide,” Ensign said. “Americans’ ingenuity and creativity can provide more choices for consumers if government bureaucrats will get out of the way and allow our companies to compete.”

Ensign's bill also contains federal consumer protection standards and ensures local governments' right to franchise fees up to 5% of gross video revenues.

Current requirements for video providers to carry public access channels and carry local broadcasters' signals would be maintained as well. Also, all video content controlled by a vertically integrated pay-TV distributor would be made available to other distributors "on fair and equal terms." Exclusive contracts for sports programming would be prohibited, regardless of whether programming rights are controlled by a vertically integrated distributor. 

His bill is aimed at accelerating telephone companies' entry into the video business without drawing opposition from the cable industry. Phone companies are trying to eliminate the need to apply for more than 30,000 local franchises to begin offering TV service nationwide and are seeking either national or statewide TV franchises. The cable industry, however, has vowed to block any relief for phone companies that does not also apply to existing operators.

The legislation was enthusiastically endorsed by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the U.S. Telecom Association, and the Consumer Electronics Association. Consumers Union and Common Cause oppose Ensign's bill. The National League of Cities hasn't yet taken a position on the bill, but generally opposes attempts to roll back municipal governments' franchising authority.Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Gordon Smith have introduced competing legislation that cable opposes because it gives any phone company currently operating the right to add video without obtaining an additional franchise.

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