Senate Panel Approves Satellite-Fee Bill

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Washington -- The Senate Commerce Committee voted
unanimously last Thursday for a bill that would roll back a sharp increase in copyright
fees that satellite carriers are required to pay for distant-network and superstation
signals.

The bill is designed to promote competition between cable
operators and direct-broadcast satellite companies like EchoStar Communications Corp. and
DirecTv Inc., which claimed that they pay substantially higher fees than cable operators
for the same signals, and that they are less competitive with cable as a result.

The bill (S. 1422), sponsored by Sen. John McCain
(R-Ariz.), would overturn an order by the Librarian of Congress to raise the price of
distant-network signals from 6 cents per subscriber, per month, to 27 cents, and the price
of superstations from either 14 cents or 17.5 cents to 27 cents. The 27-cent rate took
effect Jan. 1.

McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, did not
indicate when he would seek a full Senate vote on his bill. A McCain aide said the senator
planned to consult with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) on possible floor
action.

In the House, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) has introduced
similar legislation. That bill (H.R. 2921) is awaiting action by Tauzin's
Telecommunications Subcommittee.

On a related front, the Satellite Broadcasting and
Communications Association last week announced its opposition to a House bill (H.R. 3210)
that would authorize DBS companies to retransmit local TV signals into the market of their
origin.

The SBCA said it opposed the bill "in its current
form," in part because the measure failed to include the kind of copyright-fee relief
contained in the McCain and Tauzin bills.

The absence of relief "will result in a major
competitive disadvantage for the satellite industry," said SBCA president Charles
Hewitt in a March 11 letter to Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), the bill's sponsor.

Hewitt also complained that several features of the bill --
including must-carry provisions and rules to protect network and syndicated programming
from out-of-market competition -- were unworkable.

Hewitt asked Coble, chairman of the Courts and Intellectual
Property Subcommittee, to postpone the scheduled March 18 vote on the bill. A Coble aide
said last week that a subcommittee vote would not be delayed.

In other action last week, McCain's panel approved:

• A bill (S. 1619) sponsored by McCain and Sen. Ernest
Hollings (D-S.C.) that prevents schools from receiving Internet subsidies unless they use
filtering systems that are capable of blocking indecent materials based on local
standards. Libraries receiving similar funding would have to install a filter on at least
one computer.

• A bill (S. 1482) sponsored by Sen. Dan Coats
(R-Ind.) that would prohibit the commercial distribution over the Internet's World
Wide Web of material that is harmful to minors. The bill is intended to replace the
Communications Decency Act, the 1996 Internet-smut bill that the Supreme Court ruled
violated the First Amendment.

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