House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) told a group of broadcasters in Washington Tuesday that he and other committee members were having a meeting later that day to try to come to some "bypartisan agreement on a telecommunications bill," which is a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Barton plans to mark up the bill in his committee in March.
Barton told broadcasters gathered for an NAB-sponsored State Leadership Conference that the bill's primary component would be a so-called "video services protocol" for telephone companies, wireless companies and cable.
He did not explain, though it sounded like a way to address the issue of streamlining the video-franchising process for new video entrants.
The senate plans to mark up its own version of a telecom bill rewrite in March as well.
"I understand you talked to (previous conference speakers Reps.) Chip Pickering, Rick Boucher, and Lamar Smith, " said Barton. "They've said all the easy things, and I'm sure said the things that you wanted to hear. I'll tell you things as I see they are right now."
Barton said he did not see the committee introducing a second bill to handle some of the DTV issues--cable conversion of a digital signal to analog, for one, multicasting must-carry is another--that were stripped from the DTV hard date bill because of Senate rules. "I don't see that happening this year," he said.
He also said that he did not think it was likely that those issues would be rolled into the telecom bill rewrite.
A top staffer for Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), earlier in the day suggested some of those issues might be rolled into the Senate version of the bill.
Barton did not foreclose that option on the House side, but said it was not likely.
Barton also said that he didn't see moving a bill in this session that would confine satellite radio to a local-only service--a big issue for the National Association of Broadcasters--or one giving the FCC authority to mandate the broadcast flag digital content-protection technology--another key issue for broadcasters.
"I have a lot of sympathy for [the flag]," he said, adding that combining the flag with some version of a fair use bill might be a possibility. But looked at separately, he said, the prospects were not good for legislation this year.
The culprit was not his opposition, but the short legislative calendar--only 60 more days--he said.
Commerce has to deal with energy, environment, health care, sports, ports, and commerce, as well as telco, he said. Even if the broadcast flag was at the top of the agenda, it would be hard to get it done. And then "we would have to get it through the other body," he pointed out. "On a good day, the Senate can't agree that the sun is coming up in the East," he said. "That's on a good day, and there ain't many good days in the Senate."
One bit of good news for broadcasters: Barton said he thought the digital transition would go more smoothly than many have predicted.
Barton said he understood broadcasters had to put up a lot of money for digital facilities and were worried about converter boxes, downloading digital content, and other issues. Barton said the committee would assert take aggressive oversight of the transition. "As problems arise, we'll get the FCC and the NTIA [the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, which is overseeing the digital converter box subsidy], manufacturers and cable companies together if necessary."
But he said that he thought the DTV transition, still three years out, "will go a lot more smoothly than most of you think." Barton said he would need broadcasters help in being ready for the transition, saying that if the transition doesn't work, "there may be a few calls getting through to my island hideaway in the Bahamas, but there won't be many. Your phone numbers are public. We're in this together."