Prospects Dim for Franchise Bill This Session


Prospects may be dimming for federal legislation creating a national video franchising scheme.

Verizon EVP Tom Tauke, himself a former Congresssman, says "the process is working against us" for getting a national bill this session to "reduce barriers" to telco entry into video.

Verizon, which has been the most aggressive telco in the video space with its rollout of its FiOS multichannel service, is pushing for federal and state bills that would help it bypass time-consuming local franchise negotiations.

Cable argues that would give telcos an unfair advantage, but Tauke points out that when cable got into telephone service it was not under the same kind of regulations phone companies were held to.

In a policymaker interview scheduled to air on C-SPAN's Communicator series Saturday (6:30 p.m.), Tauke said that while he believes there is "very strong" support for national legislation, there may not be enough days left in the legislative session.

Tauke said he thought that such legislation might be handled either as part of a larger rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, but added that he has never known either House Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) or Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to "try to let the perfect be the enemy of the good... If ,along the way, they find it easier to take the more sweeping telecom reform and take it in pieces, I think they may do that and I expect one of the more popular elements will be facilitating our entry into the video space."

Tauke says he has 400 local negotiations underway for FiOS franchises and is still seeking statewide franchise laws like the one Verizon helped secure in Texas. Virginia is poised to pass such a bill, and things are progressing in Indiana.

On the issue of giving viewers more control over indecent programming, Tauke said he saw it as a "market opportunity."

He said that with a 13-year-old daughter, "there is a lot of stuff, even on the networks, that you really don't want your 13-year-old to watch."

He said that as Verizon rolls out its video service, the company has an "easier and better" parental control system than the competition, plus a lot of free video on demand programming.

He says that policy of "a la carte" programs (VOD), plus parental controls, will give the company a response to what it sees as a demand in the marketplace. " I think that many consumers want family-friendly programming coming into the home."

Verizon Wireless has taken a strict line about what video can be downloaded over its phones and what kinds of services it can offer. But, he adds, these phones can also access content over the Internet, which the company does not restrict access to (and likely could not without raising criticism from 'Net neutrality proponents).

"We have a big conflict here in this one area. On the one hand, saying we don't block Web sites that are legal. We allow consumers to go where they want and get the content that they choose from the internet. Keeping that internet free from our control as network providers. And at the same time we're trying to meet the desire for decency in what is made available to the public and there is something of a tension between those two.