Multicast Must-carry Is Congress' Call, Says Stevens


Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said Wednesday that he thought Congress, not the FCC, should decide whether or not to grant TV stations multicast must-carry.

"We're hoping that, if it's going to be done, it's going to be done by Congress and not by the FCC. It's too easy to change at the FCC," he said in response to a question from Multichannel News Washington Bureau Chief Ted Hearn.

Martin has asked the FCC commissioners to approve on circulation--without having to vote in the monthly meetings--on reversing an earlier FCC ruling and requiring cable systems to carry a TV station's multiple digital signals, not just a digital version of its primary signal.

Stevens was addressing a National Cable & Telecommunications Association legislative fly-in in Washington. He could almost have told Martin himself, since the conference was in a hotel only a a few hundred feet from Martin's office in the building next door.

Stevens said that there is a new draft of a Senate communications/video franchise reform bill that includes compromise language on some key issues reflecting input from the cable industry, among others.

NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow had already pronounced the cable-friendly Senate bill a "terrific" start on franchise reform.

One of the revisions is on the hot-button issue of net neutrality, where Stevens said the bill would take a consumer approach. "Basically, we are defining what the FCC should do with consumers to ensure net neutrality."  He added that the large entities in the industry "should fight their own battle."

But Stevens said the bill does not grant the FCC authority to write network-neutrality rules, an authority not granted by the House version, either.

But even that consumer focus would be more than the initial draft, which only contained a mandate for the FCC to study the issue and "raise a red flag," said Stevens, if they found a problem. Stevens said he would take the "credit or blame" for that original approach.

Stevens said he wasn't interested in Congress refereeing business disputes between multibillion-dollar companies, favoring marketplace solutions.

Stevens also said that he thought everybody should have to a pay a little bit into the Universal Service Fund. Currently, companies have to contribute a portion of their phone revenues to the fund, which underwrites telecommunications to rural and underserved areas, but not their broadband revenues. But he said he had no problem with Chairman Martin's plan to up the percentage cable companies pay into the fund on their VoIP revenues, and to make that a mandatory rather than a voluntary payment. He said the FCC can do what it wants under existing law, then follow the new USF guidelines once the bill passes.

Stevens seemed to suggest in his speech that there could be some kind of build-out requirements in the new draft, saying that he thought there was a new American right to Internet access and that no sector should be able to impede that. The cable industry has been pushing for build-out requirements for the telcos whose entry into the video and broadband space will be eased by the franchise-reform bill, given that cable has had to build-out its franchises per the demands of local agreements. "Build-out is a problem," Stevens said, "and we're still resolving the fringes of that issue, but I don't think anybody is having any problem with what we're going to do on build-out."

Stevens continued to maintain that a telecom bill was going to pass, saying it was crucial to the future of communications. He also pointed out that the bill contained authorization for $1 billion for first responder communications and for emergency 911 communications, both of which needed to get done, he said.