Ensign Backing Bells on Franchising


Washington -- Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) is planning to offer legislation next month that would free phone companies from needing to secure local authority to compete with cable companies.

“Video regulation designed for a monopoly age … must be eliminated,” Ensign said in a speech here Tuesday to the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a right-of-center think tank concerned about excessive regulation of media and telecommunications markets.

Ensign, who serves on the Commerce Committee, is hoping to work with chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) on overhauling the Telecommunications Act of 1991 -- a law some believe has been overrun by Internet technology.

Local video franchising made sense when cable had a monopoly, Ensign said, adding that cable faces competition from two satellite carriers and, in the near future, from SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.

“That is not a monopoly situation last time I checked. Because of that, it makes no sense having 30,000 local cable-franchise authorities continuing to issue video franchises as if they were in a monopoly situation,” Ensign said.

Verizon has complained that the need to obtain local approvals slows its video deployment and delays competition with cable incumbents.

Ensign said he has been working with Stevens on new telecommunications legislation. Earlier in the month, Stevens gave a speech in which he voiced support for relaxing franchise requirements on the Baby Bells.

In calling for elimination of local franchising, Ensign did not say whether he would replace it with a state or federal approval process. He said cable companies would operate under the same new rules as the Bells.

“If we’re going to free up the phone companies to do that, we ought to free up the cable companies,” he added.

Later, Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) called video franchising an entry barrier, but he did not agree that cable and phone companies should operate under the same rules.

“You have new entrants into voice and new entrants into video, and you want to treat them different from the incumbents,” said Pickering, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “I’ve never really bought into the concept of regulatory parity.”