Lack of Time May Doom Telecom Bill This Year

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Newport, R.I.— Sharp policy disputes and election-year time constraints could mean that a major telecommunications bill will not pass Congress in 2006, an aide to Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) said last Tuesday.

“The number of days left in the House is sub-30. I just don’t think there is enough time,” said Tad Furtado, a telecommunications adviser to Bass, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee where the House telecommunications bill originated.

Furtado, a panelist at the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association convention here, said a wide policy gulf existed between Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) on rural phone-company subsidies, and the two lawmakers were unlikely to reach a compromise.

The Senate bill (S. 2686, H.R. 5252) includes $500 million in new funding for broadband facilities in unserved areas. Barton has concerns that the $6.5 billion Universal Service Fund is not being administered properly, and has even suggested elimination of the program. The Barton-sponsored telecom bill (H.R. 5252), which passed the House in June, is largely silent on the fund.

“Sen. Stevens’ interest in passing as part of the telecom bill comprehensive universal-service-fund reform is at direct odds with chairman Barton’s views,” Furtado said. “Although there’s a small effort in the House [Energy and] Commerce Committee, led by [Rep.] Lee Terry (R-Neb.), to engage the topic, we have not done the homework or built the record required for such an important topic.’’

As a result, a bill that Sen. Stevens could agree to is not likely to come to a conference committee in time.

Furtado’s outlook may have been too grim with regard to the time remaining. In the last six years, Congress has worked into December in four of them and stayed around until Nov. 22 in the other two.

The centerpiece of the House and Senate bill is an effort to streamline cable franchising. The House bill would pave the way for a phone company to enter a video market within 30 days and the Senate bill within 90 days.

Verizon Communications Inc., which plans to pass 6 million homes this year with video facilities, is eager to see a new law this year.

“The stakes are high. The time to act is now,” said Tom Tauke, Verizon’s executive vice president of public affairs and communications, in a speech last Tuesday in Washington, D.C. (See Access, page 67).

Furtado suggested that a bill dealing strictly with cable-franchising issues had some hope. “The franchise stuff — I think there is middle ground there,” he added.