Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) would turn the Federal Communications Commission into a beehive of activity under his 135-page telecommunications bill introduced Monday in a bold step partly designed to reorder competition in the pay TV market.
Many, but not all, provisions in the Stevens bill (S. 2686) would require implementation by the FCC under chairman Kevin Martin. As FCC observers and practitioners know well, the agency’s rulings often wind up in court, giving the last word on the meaning of federal legislation to judges in courtrooms across the country.
Among other things, the Stevens bill would require local governments to grant new cable franchises within 30 days, subsidize broadband providers in rural America for the first time and force small cable operators to offer local digital-TV signals in analog until Feb. 14, 2014.
According to the Stevens bill, two-dozen provisions will require FCC rulemakings, proceedings and adjudications, giving the Martin-led agency enormous power to fill in gaps left by Capitol Hill lawmakers, often deliberately. As the saying goes, Congress paves the road, but the FCC paints the lines.
James Gattuso, senior fellow in regulatory policy at the Heritage Foundation, observed that the Stevens bill actually reduced the FCC’s workload if compared to versions of House draft telecommunications legislation circulated last year by Energy and Commerce chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas).
“There were 82 [rulemakings] in the Barton bill, so this is much lower,” said Gattuso, who worked at the FCC from 1990-93. Nevertheless, he added, the Stevens bill would “keep the FCC busy for some time.”
Despite heavy lobbying by Amazon.com Inc. (www.amazon.com), eBay Inc. (www.ebay.com), Google Inc. (www.google.com), InterActiveCorp, Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo! Inc. (www.yahoo.com) for network-neutrality mandates, Stevens declined to authorize the FCC to ban cable, phone and other broadband-access providers from demanding fees from Web-based entities in return for quality-of-service guarantees -- a positive sign in Gattuso’s view.
“The dog that didn’t bark was network neutrality, but the kennel is still out there and there are many, many dogs that can bark,” Gattuso said.
Following is a summary of the 24 rulemakings the FCC would have to conduct if the Stevens bill became law unchanged:
• FCC has 180 days to issue rules to determine who contributes to the universal-service-fund phone-subsidy program and how.
• FCC may cut off USF funding to eligible carriers that have failed to use the financial support to deploy broadband-access service within five years.
• FCC has 180 days to issue rules establishing the “Broadband for Unserved Areas Account,” including which geographic areas and who is eligible for funding.
• FCC has 180 days to establish rules addressing “phantom traffic” and require voice-communications-service providers to identify the source of all of their voice traffic.
• FCC has 180 days to establish rules to safeguard the schools and libraries Internet-access-subsidy program from waste, fraud and abuse.
• FCC has 120 days to implement new cable-franchising rules.
• FCC has 120 days to update cable regulations to reflect changes made by new cable-franchise provisions.
• FCC has 30 days to create a nationally applicable, standardized franchise-application form for video-service providers, the new name for cable operators the bill adopts.
• FCC has 120 days to adopt regulations with respect to customer-service and consumer-protection requirements of VSPs.
• FCC has 180 days to specify prohibited conduct generally in connection with ending a pay TV provider’s exclusive access to live sports programming.
• FCC shall prescribe regulations for the adjudication of sports freedom complaints filed by a pay TV provider.
• FCC has six months to conclude rulemaking to implement broadcast-flag regulations designed to protect digital-TV signals from Internet piracy.
• FCC has six months to conclude a rulemaking to implement regulations agreed upon by an FCC-appointed board to shield digital-audio content from illegal redistribution. The board has 18 months to propose regulations.
• FCC has 270 days to adopt minimal technical and device rules for the operation of unlicensed wireless devices in broadcast-TV spectrum that do not cause harmful interference.
• FCC has 60 days to adopt rules on the labeling of analog-TV sets that won’t work with over-the-air antennas after Feb. 17, 2009. The agency also has to develop consumer-information guidelines on the digital-TV transition for placement in retail stores.
• FCC has 30 days to begin a consumer-outreach program to educate consumers about the digital-TV transition.
• FCC shall order each TV licensee to broadcast daily, from July 17, 2009 [sic] until Feb. 17, 2009, two 30-second public-service announcements notifying the public of the digital-TV transition. The commission picks the time the ads must air. Failure to air the ads could result in criminal penalties.
• FCC has 60 days to create the public sector-private sector Digital TV Working Group to promote consumer outreach, among other things, on obtaining digital-to-analog converter boxes.
• FCC shall set, until May 17, 2009, the energy standards for digital-to-analog converter boxes sold in the United States.
• FCC has 45 days to reinstate its TV video-description rules for the blind.
• FCC has 120 days to initiate, and one year to complete, a proceeding to incorporate accessible information requirements, such as emergency alerts and local news bulletins, in its video-description rules.
• FCC, every six months, has to submit a report to Congress on the status of digital-TV coordination with Canada and Mexico until such coordination is complete.
• FCC has 180 days to adopt rules that ban the distribution of child pornography by a video service.
• FCC has to report to Congress annually for five years on developments in Internet-traffic processing, routing, peering, transport and interconnection, and on business relationships between broadband-service providers and applications and online user services.
• FCC, if it determines there are significant problems, shall make recommendations to Congress on ensuring consumer access to lawful Internet content and applications.