Barton: Bush Will Sign ’06 Telecom Bill

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President Bush will sign a bill this year that will likely push aside local governments and allow phone companies to sweep into cable markets within a few weeks, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said Wednesday.

“Obviously, it’s going to be modified and amended, but I think it has real power and I believe the president will sign a version very close to this bill sometime this calendar year,” Barton said in a conference call with reporters.

Barton’s bill, unveiled Monday, would award a national video franchise to phone companies, which would not have to meet a timetable to provide service throughout communities. Cable operators fear that the phone companies will target affluent enclaves and ignore low-income areas until forced to serve them by regulators.

A hearing on the bill is scheduled for 10 a.m. (EST) Thursday in the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

The bill would largely do away with the system in which wireline video providers need permission from local governments to provide service.

The subcommittee is expected to vote on the bill April 5, followed by a full committee vote in late April or May.

“The Speaker and the Majority Leader are already clearing floor time for us. They have made it a high-priority item,” said Barton, who predicted a House vote “sometime in May or June.”

During the call, Barton defended his decision to deny the Federal Communications Commission the authority to draft rules designed to ensure open high-speed-Internet networks, also called network neutrality.

“Before we get too far down the road, I want to let the market kind of sort itself out,” Barton said. “I am not convinced that we really have a problem on net neutrality. I know the average congressman doesn’t know what the term means. Experts disagree on what it means.”

Also on the call were subcommittee chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who agreed to co-sponsor the bill after senior committee Democrats John Dingell (Mich.) and Edward Markey (Mass.) refused to sign on.

“I was motivated to clear the logjam. I thought that my constituents need competition, my constituents need better access to programming, they need better access to competitive pricing,” Rush said. “There was a logjam and I decided that let’s move this thing forward. Let’s end the logjam.”

Upton said he expect support from cable and phone companies. “I want to say that we are very close to getting their sign-off,” he added.

A few weeks ago, Barton reached a deal with Dingell and Markey that he couldn’t sell to his GOP rank and file because the package included regulatory provisions aimed at cable incumbents.

The absence of Dingell and Markey was “not a positive sign,” Barton said, adding, “We may yet get them because we share the same goals.”

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