Telcos Make Franchising Pitch

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Top telephone-company executives asked Congress to streamline cable-franchising rules during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Feb. 15, engendering some sympathy from the panel.

“I believe the franchising process needs to be looked at, needs to be streamlined,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a moderate making a point supported by several committee senators from both parties.

“The time for a national, streamlined franchising process is now because the era of broadband video is here,” said Verizon Communications Inc. CEO Ivan Seidenberg, who accused cable of “sending their lawyers to impose on Verizon a laundry list of onerous obligations.”

The franchising ruckus prompted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to begin work on a bill that would eliminate local entry barriers if providers offered a menu of a la carte programming in conjunction with traditional programming packages. AT&T Inc. has promised a la carte offerings if allowed to by content vendors.

“I don’t see why a retired person in Sun City, Ariz., should have to pay an exorbitant fee to watch ESPN,” said McCain, adding that his bill would emerge “soon.”

Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) wants to vote on a bill in March. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) said he thinks legislation has a chance because he and other lawmakers want companies to spend billions of dollars to deploy broadband facilities in rural states if provided the right incentives.

“We have hearings, people get worked up and then nothing happens,” Rockefeller said of most legislative efforts. “It can’t be one of those years on this subject because I think the stars are aligned.”