Sports Access Dropped From Senate Franchise Bill

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The latest draft of a video franchise reform/telecom bill rewrite--number three--from the Senate Commerce Committee puts more teeth in network neutrality language and targets neutrality protections to consumers, requires networks to sell stand-alone Internet service, and encourages cable operators to offer family tiers.

What it doesn't do is mandate sports programming access requirements, which had been pushed by telcos and opposed by cable and had been included in the telco-friendlier draft number two.

Prompted by some high-profile sports access fights, the second draft had closed the so-called terrestrial loophole, which allowed a cable operator like Comcast not to give the satellite competition access to its regional sports network because it was delivered terrestrially. Current law requires access only to satellite-delivered programming networks.

Net neutrality is a key issue in the bill, one of whose key provisions is revising the video franchising system to make it easier for telcos and others to compete with cable. The idea is to spur price and service competition, as well as to extend Internet service to more Americans.

Network neutrality is a tough term to get agreement on. It seems to mean both nondiscriminatory access to Internet sites, software and services, but also to others it means government regulations against charging more for, say, the extra bandwidth and security to deliver video.

That, say big computer companies, could discourage innovation repress speech.

Billion-dollar computer companies are fighting with Billion-dollar cable and telephone companies over the issue in a lobbying campaign that has blanketed the nation's capital.

In the latest bill draft, Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) followed through with his pledge to add consumer protections and more teeth to FCC guidelines on open Internet access/net neutrality, though whether they are enough to satisfy net neutrality proponents is the big question.

The bill contains what it bills as an Internet Consumer Bill of Rights, which is certainly more than the old bill said about the issue, which was essentially only that the FCC would have to study it.

The bill of rights is essentially about access--to software, devices and search engines--but not about prices and services that networks want to offer and net neutrality backers say would create a tiered world of Internet haves and have-nots, although the bill does require clear notification of differences in speeds, service and price.

It also makes it illegal to limit access for political or religious reasons. Some groups, including religious organizations and gun owners, were concerned that networks would impede their ability to mount e-mail campaigns pushing various policies.

The bill gives the FCC power to write regulations enforcing the bill of rights, something the House version of the video franchising bill does not do.

Still, the early returns from network neutrality fans were not promising given its relative silence on the tiered pricing issue.

"Don't be fooled by claims of ’compromise,' said the It's Our 'Net Coalition, which is backed by the bucks of Google, Microsoft, eBay and Yahoo!, among others. "This latest Senate draft may be dressed up in a new outfit. But underneath, the language remains the Internet Bill of Wrongs instead of an Internet Bill of Rights that Internet users deserve.

"The new bill does nothing to prevent the network operators from creating a two-tiered, pay-to-play Internet and does nothing to protect American Internet users and small businesses from discrimination at the hands of the network operators.

"The Internet still ends up split into Lexus lanes and dirt roads, and an FCC rendered powerless to protect American consumers."

Saying Congress endorses voluntary efforts by a number of cable operators to launch family tiers, the bill also charges those operators with submitting an annual report to Congress on whether they offer a family tier and, if so, how much they charge, how extensively they market it, and how popular it is.

The committee is scheduled to amend and vote on the bill June 22, after which it must be reconciled with a much different House version if it is to become law in this session of Congress.

Unlike the House version, which only deals with video franchising, the Senate bill establishes that unlicensed wireless devices can be used in the broadcast band--in part to spur wireless internet access, also in competition to cable; give the FCC authority to establish a broadcast flag content protection scheme, lays out some ground rules for the DTV transition, and more.

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