Senate raises flag

Committee approves telecom reform bill

WASHINGTON — After three days of debate, the Senate Commerce Committee approved by 15-7 a massive telecommunications reform bill. Legislation would affect large segments of the entertainment industry should the full Senate pass it in a floor vote — probably next month.

Among other things, bill contains provisions that would confer authority on the Federal Communications Commission to mandate antipiracy technology known as a broadcast flag — which Hollywood has sought for some time. The FCC tried three years ago to mandate a broadcast flag, but a federal appeals court blocked the attempt, saying the agency lacked authority.

Telephone companies, such as Verizon and AT&T, wanting to enter the video-delivery market will receive breaks on current franchising requirements. The Senate wants to promote price and service competition in the cable television industry.

While unhappy about the breaks for telcos, cablers celebrated a victory during Wednesday’s debate over one of the scores of amendments that senators wanted to attach to the main bill. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tried to attach an amendment requiring a la carte subscription options, but committee members voted against it.

Some broadcasters welcomed successful attachment of a different amendment — to indemnify independent television and radio affiliates, not owned by networks, from indecency fines. The amendment released from harm any such affiliates that would have no reasonable way of knowing indecent content was about to air.

The biggest debate erupted over the issue of Net neutrality, a still amorphous concept that Internet service providers should not charge different rates for different content or favor content in any way. Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said any attempt to add Net neutrality guarantees to the bill would kill its chances of passage by the full Senate.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) countered that without Net neutrality provisions, the bill likely will not muster 60 votes in the full Senate, suggesting Net neutrality supporters might lead a filibuster against the bill.

The committee vote on the Net neutrality amendment was a deadlock, at 11-11. But a tie is the same as a defeat. When the bill comes to the Senate floor, amendments still can be — and will be, as some senators promised — offered. The last of Net neutrality has not been heard, Kerry and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) vowed.

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