Franchise Bill Slated for Vote

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House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has scheduled floor time June 7 (Wednesday) for a vote on the House telecom reform bill, though other Hill sources say it could be pushed to Friday, with a Wednesday rules committee meeting on what amendments, if any, can be added.

The Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act (COPE), which passed overwhelmingly (42 to 12) in the House Energy & Commerce Committee, would create a national franchising scheme that would pave the way for the telcos to more easily compete with cable. The bill encorporates FCC guidelines on nondiscrimination in the provision of Internet service. That is more than a Senate version of the bill has, but not enough to please supporters of so-called "network neutrality."

Lobbying for stronger net neutrality provisions in both bills has heated up in Washington, and the issue threatens to delay or derail the legislation.

The goal, the bill's proponents have said, is to increase price and service competition to cable, while speeding the rollout of high-speed Internet service, though some telco execs have tried to allay Wall Street concerns by suggesting that it will not be a price war but a competition for value and service.

Both the House and Senate are revamping the 1996 Telecommunications Act to reflect the rise of the Internet to near-utility status and the government's compelling interest in promoting high-speed Internet access.

Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) has all but guaranteed a bill will make it to the president's desk this session, daring reporters to bet against it. But at least one cable lobbyist privately advised this reporter to take that bet.

Not included in the bill are voted-down amendments that would have held national video franchisees to a build-out schedule and toughened prohibitions on red-lining--building out more attractive parts of a franchise and bypassing ones with less potential return on investment.

Still, the bill has language that requires telephone companies getting into video service to eventually serve all of a franchise, rather than allowing them to choose which parts of an area to offer service to, as the bill passed out of the Telecommunications Subcommittee allowed. That anti-redlining addition sat well with the cable industry, which had been pushing for it, but was not enough for Markey and others who wanted build-out requirements as well.

The committee voted 34-22 not to adopt an amendment toughening "network neutrality" provisions in the bill. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who spearheaded the amendment, had argued that, without the amendment, the bill would spell the "end of the Internet as we know it," allowing telephone companies to discriminate in Internet service and fundamentally change the character of the Internet.

Chairman Joe Barton strongly opposed the amendment, saying the bill already contained sufficient protections for Internet access--through FCC adjudicatory powers--and that anything more specific would be unnecessarily preemptive.

The Senate version of the telecom reform bill, which includes a basketfull of other issues, has not yet been voted on in committee, though that is scheduled for later this month.

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