A vote of the Senate Commerce Committee is expected June 22. As it approaches, the ranking committee Democrat, Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, is reacting angrily to the latest draft of the video-franchising legislation, unveiled over the weekend.
The legislation that the House of Representatives sent to the Senate is aimed at making it easier for phone companies to offer cable TV service without having to negotiate franchises city by city. Phone companies say the legislation will bring competition to cable, helping lower consumer costs. They also maintain the bill is needed to pay the heavy cost of upgrading local phone lines to carry not only cable, but also internet traffic at speeds beyond what's now commonly available.
Consumer groups and internet companies pushed for a "net neutrality" amendment to be added to the bill, out of fear that phone and cable companies providing the new, higher internet speeds will reserve them for either their own content or paying partners' content, effectively creating a two-lane road, one for preferred content providers and one for everyone else.
Mr. Inouye called the Senate's version of the legislation being offered by chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, "a further step backwards for consumers" and said its net-neutrality provisions "utterly fail to protect consumers and preserve an open internet."
"Under the current language, network operators will have the ability to dictate what the internet of the future will look like," Mr. Inouye continued. He warned it would give network operators "the unfettered capacity to discriminate against unaffiliated online content."
While video-franchising legislation easily passed in the House, senators have traditionally taken a more skeptical view of issues involving media ownership.
Mr. Inouye's comments came despite steps Mr. Stevens took to alter his original proposal and drop some controversial elements.
Internet consumer bill of rights
Aides to Mr. Stevens said he replaced his original proposal for a study of net neutrality with language creating a new "internet consumer bill of rights" that would bar phone companies from blocking the content of internet rivals and would give the Federal Communications Commission new authority to punish violators.
Still, the legislation won't impose net-neutrality requirements and bans the FCC from ever imposing them.
Mr. Stevens took other steps in the latest version of the legislation. He abandoned a proposed requirement that cable providers allow phone companies access to their regional sports networks, required companies to air a broadcast flag for TV and moved to require that most court challenges of FCC actions be decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a court that has been friendly to business but unfriendly to consumer groups.