Gordon Smith On Stuck Telecom Bill: Help!

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We need your help.

That was Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith's message to The Media Institute lunch crowd Wednesday on passage of a now-controversial communications reform bill in the Senate.

Commerce Committee member Smith said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was trying to help get the 60 votes needed to bring the bill to a floor vote (essentially to make it filibuster-proof), but said that likely won't happen, if at all, until a lame duck session after the November elections. "I expect to be here until Christmas Eve," he said.

Smith's specific topic was the broadcast flag content protection technology that is part of the omnibus--more omnibus than he would have liked--Senate bill. But his text was a general handicap of the bill's prospects, which have been dimmed over the issue network neutrality, and warning about what its defeat would mean.

If the bill doesn't pass, he said, the country will fall behind in broadband deployment to the tune of a trillion dollars and a million-plus jobs lost. "We need your help, we need 60 votes," he told the crowd of media executives.

Asked why the network neutrality supporters had been so successful in impeding the bill, given they had been outspent by the telcos on lobbying, Smith said he could only speculate, but pointed to the populist argument that the internet, that came to us "almost by accident" and had become available virtually for free. They don't want to change that."

"I'd love everything to be free too," he said, but argued that if the country is to get to the "next level" of broadband, and get it to more and more Americans, "you allow the marketplace to work. If you say right up front you can't charge this or you can't discriminate as to customers who bring volume, then you take a tremendous incentive away from investment."

The bill, in addition to protecting broadcast digital content via the flag, primarily eases video franchise regs to allow telcos to more easily get into the business and build out broadband. The flag is key, he argued, because it will pave the wave for content that will drive subscribers.

"All that goes in the trashcan," he said, if a bill doesn't pass. Calling network neutrality the Elephant in the Room--though given the partisan split on the issue, it is more like a Donkey--Smith said that it was a "mistake" to be talking about the issue because it could thwart all the good that could come out of the bill's passage.

Saying the network neutrality proponents had some good arguments--saying they frame it as an issue of consumer protection--he called the debate a "game of chicken."

Smith said one of the "grassroots complaints" he hears "all the time" is over cable bills, a reason he thought pressure would build for the bill, "hopefully some middle ground will be struck, and we can move this bill. but where it stands, it's stuck, and I wish it were otherwise."

Republicans have already threatened to make a campaign issue out of the bill's stalemate, pitching it as Democrats standing in the way of broadband deployment and price and service competition to cable.

If the bill ultimately fails, he said plan B was to separate out the broadcast flag part and try to pass it separately.

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