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House Passes Telecom Bill

Washington — A telecommunications bill which would make it easier for telephone companies to add cable television services in their territories passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday by a vote of 321-101.

If the measure becomes law, telephone companies would be able to establish national video franchises for television service, much as satellite TV providers do, without the need for local government approvals that had been required for regional cable TV providers.

The legislation would extend similar rights to cable TV companies, while giving local governments continued control of access to their rights of way. Local governments would be able to share up to 5 percent of a national video franchisee’s gross revenue as compensation for use of public property.

The bill also would call on the Federal Communications Commission to enforce “net neutrality” rights.

However, in passing the measure, the House rejected an amendment that would have imposed mandates against Internet access providers discriminating between suppliers of voice, video and other content services.

The bill did include an amendment that raised the maximum fine the FCC could assess on national franchises that denied video service based on the income of a particular group from $500,000 to $750,000.

Legislators that approved the bill, including House, Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) hailed the measure for encouraging greater competition for video services, while keeping in check regulatory actions over the Internet.

But the action still requires approval of the Senate, which while appearing to generally favor portions encouraging cable TV competition, remains divided between party lines over Internet regulation.

The White House expressed support for the House bill, after its passage, but many congressional Democrats feel the measure failed to adequately address the need to protect the Web from Internet access providers that, among other things, would like to establish two-tiered services requiring corporations to pay higher service fees.

Some Capitol Hill observers fear time may run out in the abbreviated congressional session before the Senate can approve its own telecommunications bill.