Senate Passes Paygo-Friendlier 10-Year STELA


Add "revenue neutrality" to "network neutrality" in the lexicon of issues causing debate among communications policy watchers -- and makers -- on Capitol Hill.

There is yet another wrinkle in the satellite bill saga, with now three different bills with three different deadlines, including a 10-year reauthorization.

The Senate Thursday passed a stand-alone version of the STELA, the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, that changes what has been a five-year renewal of the satellite license to 10 years.

The bill reauthorizes the license that allows satellite subscribers who cannot get a viewable signal from their in-market affiliate to get an out-of-market version. It also will get local signals to the remaining 28 or so smaller markets where it has been uneconomical to deliver them.

The change to a 10-year window was said to be so that the bill would "score" in terms of being revenue-neutral, which it is not at five years, due to the way copyright fees are collected and disbursed over the smaller window versus the longer span. Apparently, due to an accounting issue, the bill at five years would see the government paying out more than it would collect. That would need to be offset somewhere else, due to the new pay as you go rule that any legislation that has a negative fund outlay has to include such measures.

The 10-year version would actually be revenue-positive to the tune of $270 million-$280 million, according to a committee source, though that is "accounting money and not real money," said another.

That 10-year version now goes to the House, which already has a Senate-passed version of the same bill with the five-year renewal.

The House and Senate Thursday also passed a 30-day extension on the satellite license, which means they have that much more time to decide between the two bills.

The license had been scheduled to expire Dec. 31, 2009-the end of the previous five-year period -- after a reauthorization bill failed to pass. But a stop-gap extension of the license was passed, in a package of other extensions, to Feb. 28, then again to March 28, when no agreement could be reached -- reportedly due to the revenue-neutrality issue, and now to April 30 as the House figures out which of the two bills to pass.

According to Senate Commerce Committee sources, the April 30 extension passed on the understanding that the Senate would also pass the 10-year version of the bill and let the House take a crack at it when it returns from spring break.

According to committee sources, "nobody loves the idea of the 10-year reauthorization" given the pace of change in the industry. The bill also contains studies of whether the license should be phased out and whether there should be modifications to other elements of local TV station signal delivery. But Congress would not necessarily have to wait until the authorization sunsets to revisit it, the sources pointed out, and 10 years should take care of the revenue neutrality issues that appeared to be holding up the five-year renewal in the House.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary, which shares jurisdiction over the issue with Commerce, agreed that 10 years was not his first choice, and signaled he wouldn't mind the House passing the five-year extension that the Senate has already approved.

"Today, the Senate passed the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010 (STELA), which is a full, 10-year reauthorization. Since the inception of the distant signal license, the license has been reauthorized for five year periods, giving all stakeholders an opportunity to revisit it and Congress the opportunity to improve it," he said. "Reauthorizing the law for 10 years is not my preferred course of action. In fact, the Senate previously passed a five-year version of STELA that makes significant improvements to current law, as part of H.R. 4213, which is currently pending in the House of Representatives.

"The version of STELA passed by unanimous consent in the Senate today contains all of the improvements from the five-year version. Nonetheless, it is my view that enacting a five-year extension is preferable, given the rate at which technology is altering the marketplace. I urge the House of Representatives to enact STELA as swiftly as possible once Congress returns from Easter recess, and I look forward to working with them to accomplish that goal. "