Big Telecom Bill Unlikely

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Washington — Congress is unlikely to pass a major telecommunications bill in 2006 due to the absence of popular support and the need for lawmakers to focus on other legislative priorities in a work-shortened election year, according to National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow.

“I think it is a truism that the citizenry are not rushing Capitol Hill with pitchforks demanding telecom [reform] now. This is not a burning electoral issue,” McSlarrow said last Tuesday at the Cable Television Public Affairs Association's Forum 2006 here.

If Congress adjourns in early October, lawmakers have fewer than 60 legislative days remaining. Many of those days will be consumed by work on must-pass spending bills and other legislative priorities, crowding out a telecom bill.

'PIECES' POSSIBLE

“If you don't see things move by June, it's hard to imagine that the closer you get to the election, the more likely it's going to be,” said McSlarrow, who did not rule out “pieces” of a large bill making it to the White House.

Cable is engaged in a political struggle with AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications over a House bill not yet written that called for awarding phone companies national video franchises while denying similar relief to cable for many years.

Facing political heat from cable and his GOP rank-and-file, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) had decided to advance a bill stripped of the provisions that riled cable, industry executives and House aides said last Thursday.

The text of the Barton bill was scheduled to be released late last Friday. A March 30 hearing in the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet is likely, followed by a vote a week later.

“It's going to be a very narrow approach,” a House GOP aide said.

Cable still has hard lobbying work ahead. Barton's bill is not expected to include build-out requirements — an omission that would allow phone companies to target affluent cable communities as they rollout video. The bill is also expected to allow the Federal Communications Commission to enforce network-neutrality principles it adopted last August.

BARTON BACKTRACKING

The pressure on Barton caused him to scuttle two provisions he had accepted in principle two weeks ago in negotiations with the committee's top Democrats, Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.).

One provision would deny a national franchise for a cable incumbent until a phone provider had 15% of the local market, and another would bar operators from slashing rates only in those sections of a community where the phone company had initiated service.

Industry executives and House aides said Barton's decision to drop those two provisions, while refusing to include build-out requirements, cost him Dingell and Markey's support, setting up a partisan contest when the committee meets to vote.

A House GOP aide was optimistic that Democrats would feel enough political pressure to cause them to support the Barton bill on the House floor, if not in committee.

“We'll have some Democrats vote against it in committee, but I don't know how they're going to vote against it on the floor. How are you going to vote against bringing your consumers lower prices?” the aide said.

Local officials are upset that the Barton bill would eliminate local cable franchising, a policy Congress adopted in 1984.

“Certainly, for local government, the bill is a disaster,” National Association of Counties lobbyist Jeff Arnold said Thursday.

AD FIGHTS

Away from Capitol Hill, the United States Telecom Association is continuing to fund cable attack ads on TV and the Internet, including a recent one on cable-rate increases that McSlarrow described as “wrong in so many ways that it's hard to know where to begin.”

The NCTA is planning its own hard-hitting ad campaign aimed at the phone industry, although the exact timing was unclear.

“Ours, of course, will be truthful and accurate and, hopefully, really vicious,” McSlarrow said. “I can do this the easy way or the hard way. If they want to do a knife fight, I can do a knife fight.”

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