Lawmakers Preparing Multi-Year Effort To Rewrite Communications Act of 1934

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By Bryce Baschuk  

Dec. 3 --Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the respective chairmen of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said they will launch a multi-year effort to rewrite the Communications Act of 1934.

They made the announcement during a Google Hangout session.

In 2014, the committee will hold hearings and develop a number of white papers to “find out what is going on today and find out what questions we need to ask ourselves and the industry,” Upton said. The ultimate goal is to use those hearings and white papers to launch an update of the Communications Act in 2015.

Walden agreed that the committee should reevaluate whether the nation's telecommunications laws have kept up with the times.

“Clearly they are old and a lot has changed,” he said. “The industry is being regulated by a regulatory agency that was created during the Great Depression and last updated when 56 kilobytes per second via dial-up modem was state of the art.”

Lawmakers from both parties have said they are interested in updating the laws governing the nation's telecommunications and video marketplace, namely the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 and the Communications Act. Walden's subcommittee has already held several hearings this year to evaluate the state of the video, audio and data marketplaces.

Clean STELA Reauthorization?

Walden did not say whether he will offer a “clean” draft bill to reauthorize the 2010 Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), which permits satellite providers to retransmit broadcast television signals. Walden previously said he would release a draft STELA reauthorization bill no later than April 2014. STELA is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2014.

Satellite companies are “now in a different place than they were when the Satellite Home Viewer Act was passed,” Walden said. “You have broadcasters with their set of issues and then you've got all these other kinds of video services that come over the Internet that may not have any of that regulation attached to it,” he said. “How do you make a competitive marketplace for consumers where you have more choice, more product and better prices?”

Some in the telecommunications industry were eyeing STELA as a legislative vehicle that could provide Congress with the opportunity to update the nation's communications laws. The House and Senate Judiciary committees share jurisdiction over STELA with the House and Senate Commerce committees.

Eshoo Bill Coming

Meanwhile, subcommittee ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) is planning to formally introduce her Video Consumers Have Options in Choosing Entertainment Act, industry sources told Bloomberg BNA. The legislation seeks to prevent companies from blacking out TV content during retransmission consent negotiations by authorizing the FCC to grant TV broadcast carriage during a negotiation impasse. Eshoo's spokesman declined to comment.

Eshoo's draft bill would allow consumers to decide whether they want to buy access to local TV stations that elect retransmission consent as part of their cable or satellite TV service. The bill would prohibit TV broadcast stations from bundling their owned or affiliated cable programming in retransmission consent negotiations.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) plans to reintroduce a separate bill this month that would overhaul many of today's most contentious video marketplace laws, his spokesman told Bloomberg BNA. The Next Generation Television Marketplace Act (H.R. 3675) would remove the regulations that govern negotiations between television networks and pay-TV companies for the right to retransmit broadcast programming. Lawmakers and the FCC have sought to address the issue following much-publicized blackouts of local TV stations, sometimes lasting weeks, for millions of customers of cable and satellite companies.

Industry Praises Effort

National Cable and Telecommunications Association President Michael Powell applauded Upton and Walden's announcement in a news release. Powell said the cable industry has “long maintained that many of the laws governing the communications marketplace are frayed. Since their creation, the landscape has been transformed--new, unimagined products and services as well as dramatic changes in market structure,” he said.

Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen commended Upton and Walden for “beginning the conversation on changing the Communications Act for the 21st Century,” according to a news release. “In the nearly 18 years since the last update of the Communications Act, the world has been revolutionized by broadband and new digital technologies. The silos of current regulation may not always fit technological realities.”

USTelecom President Walter B. McCormick said the group will work with the committee members as they “explore how best to assure American leadership in the information age, and to secure for our nation's consumers the full benefits of innovation, investment, and robust competition.”

Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association, said he hopes Congress will “continue to adhere to a 'light-touch’ approach to wireless regulation and use this effort not to impose new obligations, but rather to encourage the deployment of advanced wireless infrastructure and streamline the regulatory process.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at

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