Cable Lobby Goes on the Offensive Over House Telecom Draft

The bucket brigade is on high alert down at the cable lobby, where inchoate telecom legislation has a few hairdos on fire.

"As far as we know... it would allow telcos into video franchising on a national level and leave cable as it is until phone companies reach 15 percent of the market," said Kyle McSlarrow, chief of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, in a rapidly arranged press conference Thursday afternoon.

Under the developing legislation, cable companies would have to stay with the municipal franchise model until telco video service reached at least 15 percent of the national market. That 15 percent would most likely be the "best of neighborhoods," McSlarrow said, and for cable to compete effectively, it would have to meet or beat telcoTV pricing. However, because cable would be held to a uniform pricing structure, "whatever price we charge would have to be what we charge across the franchising footprint," he said. "We would ever be put to the choice of not competing or serving given neighborhoods."

The 15 percent threshold was set down in the 1996 Telecom Act for direct broadcast satellite, primarily because it was a startup business. McSlarrow said making similar provisions for the telcos "doesn't even pass the laugh test," especially while AT&T gobbles up BellSouth.

"The point is, against that backdrop, how can anyone argue that this industry deserves a special consideration from Congress?" McSlarrow marveled.

The legislation is also expected to impose Internet neutrality, reversing the Supreme Court Brand X decision that protected cable broadband pipes from being thrown open for competitive service providers.

"The government shouldn't regulate the Internet in the absence of a market failure," McSlarrow said.

The NCTA gave reporters about an hour's notice that McSlarrow would be commenting on an impending telecom bill. A call to House staffers indicated that said impending bill hadn't even been drafted yet, such is the NCTA's zeal for a "level playing field" with regard to telcoTV franchising. McSlarrow said his information came from multiple meetings with just about everyone involved with creating the legislation.

"I've been in discussion with leaders of House Commerce Committee... to some extent, I'm making an appeal to them," he said

The leaders of the House Commerce Committee include Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Fred Upton (R-Mich), both of whom have said they intend to crank out telecom reform before Easter. A draft bill is expected to start circulating any minute; and markup could be a soon the week of March 13.