We Say No to Telco Bill S.2686 (aka HR.5252)

Posted on July 7, 2006 - 3:39pm.

At present we do not support Senate Bill S.2686 (now renamed HR.5252). The Bill passed on June 28th in the Commerce Committee in a 15-7 vote. It excludes much needed protections against red-lining (there are no enforceable build-out provisions) and also fails to protect net neutrality. These are two key issues we can't compromise on. The 'broadcast flag' amendment is also a clear example of blatant industry protectionism and should be removed. Likewise the ambiguity in the Ensign amendment over AT&T's 'HomeZone" satellite TV service and whether it falls under the proposed video franchising requirements is another major cause for concern. In short, this legislation is unacceptable, it seeks to serve many corporate masters at the expense of a coherent social vision for democratic media.

What happens Next?
Having passed the Senate Commerce Committee, S.2686 will need to be introduced to the full Senate for a vote. If passed there, it would move into 'conference committee' to be reconciled with the House Bill HR.5252 (COPE). In the Conference Committee all public interest provisions coUld be stripped out at the whims of the majority leadership with no recourse from the House or Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Frist has ordered Commerce Chairman Stevens to get 60 senators on record to overcome a potential filibuster. The Senate has 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent. Stevens has admitted he doesn't yet have that support which mean this bill may be stalled for the remainder of this Congressional session. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has also placed a procedural hold on the legislation because the stronger net neutrality language was excluded, this could stall the bill as well.

Should S.2686 be introduced to the full Senate there may be opportunities for amendments to be added to strengthen weak spots. But it must be taken into account that Frist's 60 vote requirement is intended to assure passage in the current form and to prevent delays on the Senate floor from lengthy debates on the introduction of new amendments. In addition, a weak S.2686 bill that reaches 'conference committee' to be reconciled with HR.5252 will yield terrible results. We believe the best strategy in this moment is to stall or stop the legislative process until more rational approaches can prevail.

The Good News?
We are still sorting through all the fallout of the Senate Commerce Committee passage of the "Communications, Consumers' Choice and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006" or S.2686. This is a massive telecommunications bill and filtering through it's 150+ plus pages and language changes will take more time for those in the public interest community to fully assess the details. We will add updates here as we learn more. As far as the good news, this much is clear:

PEG Provisions are Safe
Language to protect Public, Educational and Governmental Channels and facilities was included in the third draft and passed in the current bill. Some amendments that would have altered this language were defeated (with the exception of the Ensign amendment). At issue was the channel capacity and funding levels of these channels and facilities. Language was inserted that protected current funding levels for centers that receive more than the proposed national franchise flat rate funding model (which itself will help many access centers with local franchises that provide lower funding). NATOA, the National League of Cities, the Alliance for Community Media and many other city organizations deserve recognition for making this happen. We hope this language remains in future legislative attempts.

LPFM Expansion Included
This amendment introduced by Sen. McCain was attached to S.2686 late in the process. It expands the Low Power FM station allocations for community radio back to the levels recommended in the original FCC ruling. These were challenged by the broadcast industry in Congress over artificial technical concerns and stalled until this point. This is a good turn of events, but it would be unfortunate if such a needed correction is hampered and delayed by having been attached to a larger controversial bill.

( categories: Senate S.2686 )