Carriers Let Video Bill Slide

Just a week after its introduction, concern is already growing that the Video Choice Act may go the way of many pieces of telecommunications legislation in recent years and die in committee.

The Video Choice Act, if passed, will relieve telephone companies of the burden of seeking individual franchises from every municipality they cover in their rollout of video services.

Some cite the Senate’s busy schedule this session with the nomination of a new U.S. Supreme Court judge, while others cite the fact that even the bill’s biggest beneficiary, Verizon, is not doing its usually aggressive job of promoting its preferred legislation.

SBC Communications and BellSouth have also been relatively silent about the bill.

Verizon wrote a position paper that was not widely circulated to the media. According to Verizon, its position paper was sent to “a limited number of publications,” a move very much out of character for a company that generally takes the lead on political matters affecting telecommunications.

“This is crucial legislation to Verizon,” said David Fish, a Verizon spokesperson. “Federal legislation on franchising is one of a number of areas we are proceeding along. The Video Choice Act will affect the entire country, so it is definitely preferable to having to do this state by state.”

The bipartisan bill has a number of powerful names attached to it, including Senators Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) and John D. Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), along with their colleagues in the House, Representatives Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) and Albert Wynn (D-Maryland).

“We see this bill being passed later this year or next year, even though the Supreme Court nominations are expected to draw a lot of attention,” said Nick Bouknight, spokesman for FreedomWorks, one of the lobbying groups behind the bill. “With Representative Wynn and Representative Blackburn leading the way, and with the issue of consumer choice in video being so important, we think this bill will pass.”

FCC Alternative

But some speculate that the bill will pick up many amendments and take a long time to wind its way through the House and Senate, by which time it will miss the telephone companies’ window for their video rollouts. The phone companies would probably be happier to see the FCC do something about the franchising issue.

An FCC regulation would fit more neatly into their time frames and not run the very real risk of becoming so encumbered in the legislative process that it goes the way of most telecommunications legislation since the Telecommunications Act of 1996: the scrap heap.

“This is one of these hot-potato issues where towns and cities are not willing to give up their franchise fees, and the House and Senate are quite aware of that,” said Jim Andrew, vice president of Adventis, a Boston-based consultancy.

“They are the voters,” he added. “I don’t know if this bill is DOA, but if they can find a way to make it revenue-neutral, where the municipalities don’t lose a lot of revenue, then I could see it passing.”

The bill in fact requires new video entrants to pay fees equivalent to those paid by cable operators. It also preserves the states’ management of the public rights-of-way. But it still seems to be drawing little support from its proposed beneficiaries.