Senate Telecom Markup Begins

Debate on the wide-ranging Senate telecom bill commenced Thursday with no clear indication of how the vote will turn out. The bill appeared to enjoy the support of most of the 12 Republicans on the committee, with the exception of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who is co-sponsoring a network neutrality amendment with Sen. Brian Dorgan (D-N.D.) Full opposition by the committee's 10 Democrats was less clear; most found something to like about the bill.

Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was good with the broadcast flag and opening up unused TV channels for unlicensed devices, but she wanted the franchising language tightened.

"My constituents say more is needed," she said.

She also threw her weight behind the Snowe-Dorgan amendment, which is still on deck with 90 other amendments. Boxer said the current net neutrality language in the bill "fails to address the fundamental issue of discrimination."

Dorgan said it had "no similarity to that which we hoped for."

Network neutrality has been a monkey wrench in the gears of this bill from its inception, and several Republicans haven't budged from their opposition to it. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) called his side of the table "the freedom corner" because they view net neutrality as Internet regulation. Allen also said he'd be introducing an amendment to make the moratorium on taxing the Internet permanent.

Most of the initial markup session on Thursday was spent debating amendments on Universal Service Fund reform. The USF has traditionally been collected from long-distance revenue to subsidize phone service in rural and low-income areas. With the advent of cell phones in Internet phone service, aka VoIP, the source for USF is on the decline. The legislation in the telecom package seeks to ensure the viability of the USF. Amendments adopted Thursday would prevent economic regulation of VoIP companies at the state level.

In all, 213 amendments were filed on the bill, a record for the committee, said Hawaii's Sen. Dan Inouye, the ranking Democrat. "This will test the limits of our patience," he said.

About a dozen amendments were dispensed with before the committee adjourned. The markup of the bill, retitled "HR 5252" to replace the much less complex House version, will continue Tuesday, June 27. Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said by that time, he hoped to get the number of amendments down to about 100.