Senate Telecom Draft Opens to Mixed Reviews

Short of pounding his shoe on the podium, the chairman of Senate Commerce Committee emphatically declared that his telecom bill would become law by this summer.

"This senator is going to see that this bill gets to the floor and it passes the Senate, and it will do so this year," said Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) after a parade of senators busted on the bill during its first full committee hearing.

The Communications, Consumers' Choice and a bunch of other stuff act covers just about everything but the kitchen sink. It includes phone rates for deployed soldiers, Universal Service Fund, Internet kiddie porn, video franchising, the broadcast flag, emergency comms interoperability, broadcast white spaces... the list goes on.

Three sections of the 135-page bill proved to be particularly sticky at the hearing. It potentially dismantles the USF, a subsidy program that supports phone service in rural states. This naturally put senators from rural states on high alert. It doesn't keep Internet Service Providers from goofing with content, a concept that's come to be known as "network neutrality." Democrats on the committee want stronger net neutrality language. The bill also bypasses municipalities in video franchising, which made a lot of members nervous, seeing as how their entire constituencies are made up of municipalities.

"Local governments are usually in the best position with regard to the needs of their communities," said Frank Lautenberg, (D-N.J.) Like several other states, New Jersey is crafting its own franchising bill. "This statewide bill would be more beneficial to my constituents than the federal bill we're considering here."

Jim DeMint, Republican senator from South Carolina had a different take. His state also put together a video franchising bill, but it didn't pass, "which shows the need for a federal bill," he said.

It was Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.) who really pushed the chairman's buttons, calling S.2686 an "aggressive bill" that "would fundamentally change the way telephone, cable and satellite companies are regulated."

Boxer riffed on the telco mantra that lifting local franchise regulations would provide mind-boggling benefits to consumers. She was inclined to leave franchising in the hands of municipalities.

"We deregulated electricity in our state, much the chagrin of consumers..." Energy dereg in California "opened the door to Enron," she said. "I think our local people can handle this issue."

Just as Boxer wrapped with a call for network neutrality rules, Stevens let fly his edict about passing the bill. Boxer responded, "Don't you need the votes of the committee?"

"I think I have them," Stevens said, although it became increasingly clear during the hearing that the current draft of S.2686 was going back to the drawing board. Another hearing on the original bill will be held May 25, but a revised "substitute" bill is on the docket for a full committee hearing June 13. Mark-up for that bill is scheduled for June 20.