Outlook for Telecom legislation this year in doubt

Net neutrality failed. A plan to require telcos to offer video to all neighborhoods in their service area also failed. And John McCain's cable a la carte proposal was nixed. Left flying, however, was the war-tattered broadcast flag.

None of these contentious issues were actually resolved, however. When the Senate Commerce Committee last week approved a version of a new telecommunications legislative package, it left the toughest issues for another day.

An attempt to implement net neutrality narrowly failed in an 11-11 tie vote. That issue is certain to be revisited if and when the measure reaches the Senate floor, which would likely be after Congress' August recess and just before the elections.

Net neutrality is the issue of whether broadband Internet providers should be prevented from offering priority access to affiliated content or be able to charge additional fees to guarantee service. Internet services including Google and eBay fear that their content will be pushed into a slower network connection, while paying companies will get faster service.

Another divisive issue on the table is whether telcos must provide video services to all neighborhoods throughout the regions where they offer such service. That proposal was defeated in a 12-10 vote; close enough to ensure it resurfaces later on the Senate floor.

Staying in the legislative package was a provision that would give the FCC authority to mandate a digital content-protection system known as the “broadcast flag.” It is also certain to result in arguments on another day.

All of the wrestling over these issues may result in no legislation at all this year. Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Commerce Committee, said he still does not yet have the necessary votes to get legislation to overhaul communications laws through the full U.S. Senate.

A key reason for the legislation is to make it easier for major telephone companies such as AT&T and Verizon Communications to get a national license for offering subscription television service to compete with cable. Typically they must apply to thousands of local cities.

Stevens told reporters that he had not yet secured the 60 votes needed to end debate on the Senate floor, known as cloture, and set the measure for a final vote by the lawmakers.

It remains unclear, Reuters reported, whether the legislation has a chance of becoming law this year, particularly since the House of Representatives passed a narrower measure and the lawmakers have a shorter legislative calendar ahead of the November congressional elections.