Barton: Support National Cable Bill

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House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) sent a letter to every House member Monday seeking support for his bill, which would create a national cable-franchising system sought by major phone companies, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., according to a copy of the letter obtained by Multichannel News from an industry source.

The bill (H.R. 5252), Barton said in a one-page letter co-signed by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), would "bring more choices, lower bills and better video services by creating a single, national approval process that will speed entry of competitors.” Under current law, cable companies are required to negotiate contracts, called franchises, with local governments before offering cable service.

Rush worked closely with Barton after Barton failed to secure the support of two key committee Democrats, ranking member Rep. John Dingell (Mich.) and Rep. Edward Markey (Mass.), his party's senior member on the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Barton spokesman Terry Lane confirmed that Barton and Rush drafted and circulated the letter.

AT&T and Verizon have complained that local franchising takes too long and delays the onset of widespread wireline competition to incumbent cable operators like Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable.

"One company official testified that if AT&T signed a franchise agreement every day, it would take more than seven years to complete its deployment plan," the Barton-Rush letter declared. "We must clear roadblocks on the information superhighway."

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has not endorsed the bill, mainly because cable operators with national franchises were not explicitly required to build out entire franchise areas as local franchises require cable incumbents.

At the Federal Communications Commission, the NCTA has stated that phone companies have not demonstrated that local franchising is a barrier to entry. A Comcast official said last week that franchises were being secured faster than phone companies can deploy facilities.

The Barton-Rush letter did not directly reference the controversial buildout issue. Instead, it said the bill would “bring faster broadband in more places, especially in rural areas.”

The Barton bill would hold a nationally franchised cable company liable if it failed to offer service to a group based on the group’s income. But Barton deliberately excluded language that would have required the provision of service over time to every community in a franchise area. He believes market forces would impel phone companies to deploy facilities broadly.

Another benefit of the bill, the Barton-Rush letter added, were provisions designed to ensure that broadband-access providers would pay a price for discriminating against Web-based services offered by Google Inc. (www.google.com), Yahoo! Inc. (www.yahoo.com) and Microsoft Corp. The bill includes a $500,000 fine per violation.

The bill would “preserve network neutrality by allowing the Federal Communications Commission explicit power to go after companies that violate network-neutrality principles,” the letter said.

Internet companies that have formed a net-neutrality coalition have argued that Barton’s bill is insufficient because it would bar the FCC from promulgating rules. On the other hand, cable and phone companies fear that the bill's network-neutrality terms could lead to harmful regulation of the Internet.

Barton’s bill cleared the Energy and Commerce Committee in late April, but a request to review it by the Judiciary Committee has delayed full House consideration. It is not expected to reach the floor this week.

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