House Set to Vote on Barton Bill

6/02/2006 8:00 PM Eastern

Washington— The House is expected to vote this week on legislation that would establish a national cable-franchising system and authorize the Federal Communications Commission to police cable and telephone companies, should they discriminate between suppliers of information, voice, video and other services delivered over the Internet.

Kevin Madden, press secretary of House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Friday that the House would vote on the bill (H.R. 5252) sponsored by Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas). Because the House schedule was in flux, Madden could not supply an exact date of the vote. The vote likely will occur Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.

It’s In the House
The Barton Bill (HR 5252)
Creates a national cable franchise granted by the FCC, bypassing the local approval process.
Contains no explicit cable buildout requirements for national franchisees.
Authorizes the FCC to enforce its broadband principles but not to adopt rules. FCC may adjudicate complaints and impose a fine up to $500,000 per violation.

Barton’s bill, supported by AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., would allow new cable companies to obtain a 10-year cable franchise in any market from the Federal Communications Commission, bypassing state and local regulators that have been exercising that power for decades.

The FCC would have 30 days to grant national franchises. A cable incumbent is immediately eligible for a national franchise to reach into new markets. If a franchise area includes a competitive cable provider with a local or national franchise, the cable incumbent may seek a national franchise.

Barton’s bill would empower the FCC to field complaints and impose $500,000 fines on cable, telephone and other companies that provide broadband connections to the Internet, if there is a violation of the agency’s network neutrality principles enunciated last August. Among other things, those principles entitle consumers to access “any lawful Internet content of their choice,” and to “competition among network providers, application and service providers and content providers.”

A House vote this week, followed by Senate action by late July, could give House and Senate lawmakers enough time to assemble a consensus package for President Bush’s signature in the fall.

Before reaching the House floor, the Barton bill will be reviewed by the House Rules Committee. That panel, largely controlled by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), is charged with deciding how bills are debated on the House floor. The Rules panel could decide that the Barton bill will be voted on without any amendments.

An up or down vote on just the Barton bill would likely spark an outcry from House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), who wants the House to vote on his bill (H.R. 5417), which would subject broadband access providers to antitrust penalties if they block or slow down unaffiliated Internet services or demand payments from Web-based providers to guarantee high-quality access to consumers.

Sensenbrenner’s bill is supported by a coalition of Internet companies that includes Amazon.com, eBay, Google, IAC/InterActiveCorp, Microsoft and Yahoo Inc. Those firms agree with Sensenbrenner that cable and phone companies are determined to use their duopoly on broadband connections in any given market to derive revenue from the most popular Web sites and merchants. The coalition views the Barton bill as too weak in its approach to ensuring net neutrality.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association is neutral toward the Barton bill based on concerns that the net neutrality provisions would outlaw legitimate commercial transactions in the still-evolving Internet sector. NCTA opposes the Sensenbrenner bill.

The House vote on the Barton bill comes as the Senate Commerce Committee seeks a compromise on sweeping telecommunications legislation (S. 2686) sponsored by committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Like House lawmakers, key Senators disagree on network neutrality provisions.

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