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Infopike bill clears D.C. hurdle

Information superhighway legislation that permits telephone company entry into the cable TV business and grants spectrum flexibility to broadcasters cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

Passage of the bill offered by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jack Fields (R-Texas) came the same day the House Judiciary Committee OK’d legislation allowing the regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) entry into the long-distance and electronicinformation services business.

Both bills now go to the House floor and, combined, the two pieces of legislation represent the most sweeping reform of U.S. telecommunications law in 60 years. But there are many hurdles before any bill becomes law, not the least of which will involve the showdown between the RBOCs and long-distance carriers over exact terms of Bell company entry into long distance.

Markey-Fields’s main feature involves lifting the longstanding ban against phone company entry into the cable TV biz. Cablers would also be given the opportunity to slug it out with telcos in the delivery of local phone service.

Broadcasters emerged victorious when the commerce panel signed off on plans to allow TV stations to use unused portions of the high-definition TV spectrum for “ancillary and supplementary” services. Broadcasters — who have expressed fear of being stranded on the info highway — have been arguing for permission to use spectrum for delivery of data transmission and other services.

Under an amendment offered by Rep. Billy Tauzin (D-La.), broadcasters may provide supplemental services so long as the new business opportunities don’t interfere with HDTV delivery. Further, the Tauzin bill orders the FCC to charge broadcasters an annual fee for the right to use spectrum not related to traditional TV programming.

National Assn. of Broadcasters lobbyist Jim May hailed passage of the Tauzin amendment, and pointedly noted that broadcasters are no longer being ignored by Congress and the Clinton Administration in the infopike debate. “When we started this process, we were not even on the roster of players,” said May. “Now we’re on the first team.”

Fields, the Texas Republican, agreed. He said that “without this amendment, all other segments of the telecommunications industry would be moving into the 21st century save the broadcasters.”

Hollywood and broadcasters both scored a win during Wednesday’s vote when the Dingell committee accepted an amendment offered by Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Calif.) watering down a proposal that would have required closed-captioned programming and video descriptions for the blind.

Lobbyists for both the MPAA and the Assn. of Independent Television Stations have argued that video descriptions — the process of inserting audio narrations into a TV program during a break in dialogue — can cost in the thousands per program. Moorhead claimed there are “immense programming libraries that simply cannot be closed-captioned overnight.”

Under the Moorhead amendment, the FCC would be given six months after the bill becomes law to study the video description issue and report to Congress. The FCC could then adopt rules ensuring the accessibility of vid programming to the blind. The Moorhead proposal also orders the FCC to develop closed captioning regs within 18 months.

NCTA prez Decker Anstrom said the Markey-Fields bill “provides a sound regulatory foundation to create a competitive telecommunications marketplace.”

Also adopted was an amendment offered by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) ordering the FCC to study how best to ensure — beyond the scrambling of signals — that pay-per-view channels airing adult films cannot be received. Barton said the amendment is backed by the “family values community.” Barton withdrew an amendment that would have required cable operators to assign a personal ID number to allow subscribers access to programming offered on a per-show basis.

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