House Passes Telecom Bill

The House this week approved a telecom bill that would let phone companies obtain a national franchise to enter the video market. The Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act passed a floor vote 321-101.

Current rules require video providers to negotiate agreements with local franchising authorities, of which there are more than 40,000. Telcos lobbied hard and heavy to get legislation allowing them to forego the local process. Legislators embraced it as a way to create competition for cable TV. The COPE Act allows video entrants to obtain a 10-year franchise from the FCC, which has 30 days to grant it.

The cable lobby went along with the legislation because it allows members to create phone networks.

"...with the inclusion of interconnection language for facilities-based Internet voice providers, the COPE Act is a significant step forward for voice competition in the U.S. Cable companies today provide competitive voice service to millions of American consumers, and this legislation will encourage even more robust competition in the telephone market," read the official reax of the National Cable and Telecommunication Association.

The NCTA was also pleased that network neutrality provisions got blown out of the water. Proponents of network neutrality say legislation is necessary to keep cable and phone companies from controlling, blocking or otherwise messing with content. Opponents replied, "market forces." A network neutrality amendment from Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) was killed 269-152.

"By rejecting network neutrality regulation," the NCTA's response stated, "the House has clearly stated a preference for telecom reform that allows the marketplace and not the government to pick winners and losers.... We continue to believe that government should further study the emerging broadband marketplace before injecting itself into a thriving, dynamic market where investment and innovation are flourishing."

Gigi Sohn, president of consumer lobby group Public Knowledge, bemoaned the defeat of net neutrality.

"It is a shame that the House turned its back on the open essence of the Internet. Instead, the House ignored the arguments of consumers, technology companies and interest groups from across the political spectrum and voted to allow the telephone and cable companies to discriminate by controlling the content that will flow over the network and to assess whatever additional fees the telephone and cable companies want to charge on top of normal access rates," Sohn said.

Telecom legislation on the Senate side is in the process of being hammered out by the Commerce Committee there. A revised version of the Senate bill, which encompasses many more items than the House video franchising bill, is expected any time. Markup of the revision is scheduled for June 20.