Aftersimmering on the back burner for months, the debate over video franchise reform came to a rapid boil over the past two weeks, with developments seeming to bubble up on every front. Last Friday, the FCC held a meeting in Keller, Texas–not so coincidentally the site of Verizon’s FIOS TV launch last fall. At the meeting, the Commission officially adopted its annual report on video competition. On the following Monday, comments were filed in the FCC’s proceeding on whether local franchise authorities are unreasonably limiting competition by in delaying application by (former) telephone companies. Then came Tuesday’s hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee, where–you guesed it–video competiton was the issues of the day. Add to that the nearly ubiquitious advertising campaign launched by Verizon and AT&T for cable choice, and the issue was nearly impossible to avoid.
Will anything come of all this? Perhaps yes. Senator Ted Stevens–the Commerce Committee chair, made news by expressing sympathy for telephone company entry into the cable TV markets, and saying he’d soon introduce a bill to reform franchise rules. That’s good news. But what would it say? Earlier this month, Sens. Burns and Inouye teamed up to release a set of “principles” for franchise reform, which called for elimination of “unnecesary” delays in franchising, but also warned of writing a “blank check” to new entrants, and endorsing a “deliberately structured dualism” with a strong local role in regulation. Get past all the buzz words, and that’s a pretty weak brew of reform.
The Burns-Inouye principles were met (also this week) with counter-statement from a surprisingly diverse group of six senators, including Republicans John Ensign and John McCain and Democrat John Kerry. This statement, stressing the consumer benefits of broadband called for congressional action “this year” to reform franchising. This “gang of six” letter gave a nod to some continued local role, but the overall implication was clear–local regulators are slowing down competition, hurting consumers, and Congress should step in to stop that.
After this week, video franchise reform seems to have real momentum. In the Senate, the next move is up to Sen. Stevens, who’s bill is expected soon. The question is: will he take this opportunity to push for real change, or stick with politics as usual? Stay tuned.