On February 1st, the Republican dominated Federal communications Commission will have its first hearing in front of a Democratic-controlled Senate Commerce Committee.
Commissioners are certain to hear about the current media ownership rules review, in addition to network neutrality. In particular, network neutrality has gone from being a distant stepchild in Congress to closer member of the family with the shift to Democratic control.
Bipartisan bills in support of network neutrality have been reintroduced into both houses of congress, and their prospects for passage look a lot better this year, even if a presidential veto is always a threat.
Democratic senators will also be pushing commissioners on the issue of diversity within media ownership, as minority ownership has declined rapidly over the last ten years. Commerce committee member Byron Dorgan of ND told the Washington Post that the FCC has “effectively emasculated any public-interest standards that existed,” while the Congress has provided almost no oversight. Dorgan expects the Democratic Congress to step up oversight and force the FCC to respond.
Another thing the FCC commissioners will have to answer for during their visit to the senate commerce committee is why they voted to override some state and local laws in order to force municipalities to act within three months on applications from AT&T and Verizon to offer local cable TV service, regardless of how cooperative the big telecomms have been in their negotiations.
Neither municipalities nor states like the FCC dictating their timeline, even when some states have enacted similar laws. Some lawmakers are critical because the FCC’s ruling effectively gives a selective advantage to AT&T and Verizon compared to the incumbent cable operators who do not share in it.
The biggest opponent to the FCC’s new cable rule is probably the Alliance for Community Media, which represents hundreds of public access TV stations across the country. Along with the Alliance for Communications Democracy and local government groups, the Alliance has retained legal counsel to challenge the FCC’s decision depriving local municipalities of control over their cable franchises with the big telecoms.
Public access and other local service channels typically are obtained through the negotiations between cable companies who want to move into a community and the municipality that authorizes that use of the public right-of-way. The ACM fears that if municipalities have their hands tied by an FCC shot-clock, communities will lose their opportunities to require more public service obligations from the likes of AT&T and Verizon.
According ACM Executive Director Anthony Riddle, the alliance doesn’t want to have to go to court but he says they cannot, “stand silent while giant corporations take away the only voices our communities have– public, education and government access channels.”