telecom bill

Bill in Brief

The House passed a broad revamp of the Telecommunications Act in June 2006 - which never made its way through committee in the Senate before the 2006 elections. Now with a shift in leadership in 2007, it's possible the Dems will scrap much of the bills and start from scratch.

The Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE) would have offered telephone companies a leg-up into the video business and given the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) limited power to assure "network neutrality" on the internet. Although the bill brought up a turf war between the cable and phone industries, the more public dust-up was between critics who said the bill didn't go far enough to protect net neutrality and those who said the feds should keep out of internet regulation completely.

A telecoms bill under the Dems could revisit and rework all of the issues and provisions in COPE; CongressDaily also suggests Congress may take the piecemeal approach - passing small telecoms bills and avoiding any mass restructuring. Until we know more, all we have for you is a recap of what the Republicans were working on in 2006...

The bill's big ideas

Telecom video. The Telecommunications Act was last passed in 1996, an eon ago in technology years, when cable was the way most of us watched non-network TV. Now phone companies want in on the home video business, but they say it'll take them forever to compete with cable if they have to negotiate franchises town by town and follow "build out" rules (that force companies to provide service to poorer parts of town) - both requirements of federal and local laws. COPE would let telecoms leapfrog to get national franchises and free them up from having to "build out," at least until they hit a critical mass of users. The rationale of the bill is to bring more competition to home video and lower prices for consumers (us).

Net Neutrality.
The other big change since 1996, you may have noticed, is the growth of the world wide web. Two guiding principles of the internet, according to net advocates, are its openness and the fact that it puts all sites on equal footing. Those advocates are worried, however, that high speed internet providers are looking to create two tiers of web access - so it's easier to access some sites (that pay) over others (that don't). COPE says the FCC can take complaints and penalize an internet service if it denies access to a website outright; what the bill doesn't do, however, is clearly prohibit internet services from creating preferential tracks. The Senate language sounds a little stronger, saying internet providers can't "limit, restrict, ban, prohibit or otherwise regulate content on the Internet because of the religious views, political views, or any other views expressed in such content," but still doesn't bar providers from charging sites for different tiers of service. The Senate bill also tells the FCC to monitor for anti-competitive behavior on the internet.

Other stuff. COPE has other, less controversial, provisions: one that would let cities set up their own broadband service for lower income residents and one that makes sure VoIP users (whose phones run through cable internet) can call 911. A bill being written up in the Senate could also add provisions that ease up "a la carte" programming - letting viewers buy channels one at a time, as well as cut down on funding to support "universal" services in rural areas.

The debate

Although there's some concern the new loosened rules on video franchises don't protect low income viewers, the larger COPE controversy is about net neutrality.

Critics say the House bill does too little to protect the egalitarianism of the internet and that if internet service providers have their way, small fry websites (like, shudder, CitizenJoe) will be relegated to the hinterland of internet access while the dastardly Disneys of the media world will be forced onto unassuming websurfers' screens.

Those who argue against net neutrality rules say web advocates are overreacting (who us?), that there's no sign web users will be cut off from the scrappy alternative media they know and love and any attempt to regulate the internet would be premature, and possibly harmful. Internet service providers complain internet traffic is bursting at the seams and that creating paid-for "fast track lanes" is a way to manage the flow of traffic so that everyone is getting better access to the net.

One difficulty with teasing out the debate is that it's not clear how, if at all, internet providers would set up a tiered system - so it's hard to know what the pros and cons of that system would be. (If you, dear reader, know - please tell us.)

For more on the debate, see out cJ's Internet Neutrality Issue in Brief.

other backgrounders

  • The big "network neutrality" picture, calmly laid out in the Washington Post.

  • We can't figure out how this happened, but one of the most balanced overviews of COPE, which was passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, comes from... the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It also has its unbalanced overview, which lists more specifics about the bill.

  • CommonCause gives a quick backgrounder, with their left-leaning positions. The Benton Foundation (work doc), also a pro-"network neutrality" group, summarizes more of the nuts and bolts of the bill.


  • Cato (pdf) says fears over losing "network neutrality" are overstated and that any regulation on the issue could make things worse. Heritage explains the rationale behind helping telecoms into the video business - and argues against "net neutrality" regulation.

  • The FreePress wants to protect net neutrality - as do CommonCause and the Benton Foundation listed above.

Updated February 12, 2007

Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say? Drop a line below! In the spirit of open dialogue, cJ asks you keep it civil, keep it real and keep it focused on the message, not the messenger. See our policy page for more on what that all means.

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