These are the news headlines as read on the Feb. 24 edition of the mediageek radioshow.
Net Neutrality Setback in the House Energy & Commerce Committee
The battle over the future of the internet is heating up on Capitol Hill. The House Energy and Commerce Committee is currently drafting telecommunications legislation that will address many internet-related issues, including the ability of the nation’s largest telcos, like Verizon and AT&T, to offer cable TV services over their broadband lines.
Left out of this draft are any safeguards for network neutrality, according to congressional and industry sources as reported in the National Journal. The Baby Bells have been fighting a fierce battle against having network neutrality written into law, because such rules would restrict their ability to discriminate against any other website that offers audio, video and other rich multimedia content on the Internet.
Executives from Verizon, AT&T and Bell South have all been quoted this year talking about wanting to charge not just their broadband customers for the bandwidth they use, but charge the companies or organizations that provide the music, video and other content that flows over those broadband lines.
Internet content companies like Google and Yahoo, along with public interest groups like Free press and consumers Union, accuse the telephone companies of attempting to double dip and make internet-provided video more expensive so that consumers will prefer cable TV services offered by the likes of AT&T and Verizon.
For their part the big telcos say that they are committed to network neutrality principles, and can be trusted not to block content without there being a law. However, they do want the right to create broadband tiers, where customers will pay more in order to receive more multimedia content from other companies and organizations via the public internet.
Critics say such tiers will result in most internet households not having access to a diversity of audio and video content, like independently internet radio and video, because it will be priced out of their reach. They argue that the internet we know now, where a single monthly price for broadband allows you access to everything on the web, will turn into an internet where only the stuff offered by Verizon or Comcast is part of the basic package, and you’ll have to spend a lot more even just to get downloads of this radioshow.
Part of the reason why the House committee may not address network neutrality is that the committee members themselves can’t find agreement on the issue. So, instead, the committee essentially plans to endorse a plan offered by Verizon that would streamline the Bell’s ability to offer cable TV services in cities without having to negotiate with local municipalities like traditional cable operators do.
Of course, the nation’s cable companies don’t like such a competitive advantage being handed to these new entrants, so the current draft bill would similarly deregulate a city’s dominant cable provider once the competitor reached a fifteen-percent market-share.
While cable TV providers of all stripes would still be required to pay franchise fees to municipalities under this plan, these fees would be fixed and non-negotiable. Community media and public interest advocates are critical of this deregulation because it could spell the end of community service and public access tv channels, which are largely obtained and funded through a municipality’s negotiations with cable companies.
The House Energy and Commerce committee is likely to take up its Internet legislation in March, so there is still the possibility that network neutrality could make its way back in. The media policy group Free Press has organized a website to help people contact their federal representatives on the issue of network neutrality. go to netfreedomnow.org
Senate Commerce Committee Considers Cable Deregulation
Back in the world of cable TV, on Feb. 15 the Senate Commerce Committee took up the issue of cable TV franchising, hearing testimony on the issue from the telephone and cable industries, in addition to representatives from the alliance for community media and public knowledge.
Unfortunately, key senators on that committee have come out in favor of national cable TV franchises that would take away negotiating power from local municipalities. And support for this deregulation stretches across the aisle. Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon, Jim DeMint of South Carolina, John Ensign of Nevada and John McCain of Arizona joined Democrats Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and John Kerry of Massachussetts in signing a statement of principles in support of national franchises.
The Baby Bells, which want to offer cable over their broadband internet lines, claim that negotiating individual contracts with each city they want to offer TV services in is a slow process that will delay the entry of competition and raise prices for consumers.
The existing cable operators challenge these claims. In particular, Cablevision Chief Operating Officer Tom Rutledge told the commerce committee that AT&T and Verizon have not made good-faith efforts to obtain local franchises or they would have received more. Rutledge said the much smaller Cablevision received 100 franchises within the three years that Verizon obtained 50.
The current cable franchise law mandates a minimum 5% fee that cable operators pay back to local governments, but allows for municipalities to negotiate for more.
Anthony Biddle executive director of the Alliance for Community Media told Senators that those extra funds are often used to pay for Publicaccess, education and government channels, that would be threatened if the fee were capped at 5%, as proposed by many lawmakers.
Gene Kimmelman, Vice President of Consumers Union asked Senators to provide strong protections for consumers and communities, like offering service to all households within a municipality, and implementing requirements to ensure that public access and government channels are properly funded and public services like schools and libraries have adequate broadband internet access.
The Senate Commerce Committee is on a similar timetable as the House, with Chairman Ted Stephens expecting to bring a draft bill on cable franchising and internet issues—including net neutrality—sometime in March.