This Week in Tech: Senate Commerce talks video marketplace

The Senate Commerce Committee will take a look at regulations and business moves affecting television this week, as the panel eyes a critical satellite TV law.

On Wednesday, the committee will question whether the country is at a “tipping point” on “consumer choice, consolidation and the future video marketplace.” The session comes amid major mergers between Comcast and Time Warner Cable and AT&T and DirecTV, which have the potential to significantly affect consumers.

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“The committee will discuss the future of the video marketplace, including the impact of the growth of online video and consolidation among pay TV and broadband providers,” the panel said in a notice ahead of the hearing.

In addition to the merger questions, the Commerce Committee will likely examine the existing rules and regulations for transmitting broadcast TV programs over cable and satellite services. Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has pushed for significant reforms in that area through an expiring TV law that allows some rural satellite subscribers to pick up broadcast channels like NBC and ABC that they could not otherwise get through an antenna on their roof.

The Commerce panel is the fourth and final committee to take up that law, called the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), and Rockefeller could face an uphill battle to use reauthorization as a way to reform the current system. The Senate and House Judiciary committees both passed “clean” reauthorizations in recent weeks, and the House Commerce Committee settled for a compromise that avoided some of the most controversial measures.

Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said this week that negotiations over STELA are “not going fast at the moment.”

“We’re on schedule for when this usually gets dealt with,” he said, adding that the committee is still discussing which issues to address in the reauthorization bill.

He said he expects something “closer to the path of least resistance to try to get something done quickly, but we’ll see.”

Thune added that the Senate Commerce version of STELA is unlikely to address companies like Aereo, the online video streaming company recently deemed illegal by the Supreme Court.

While the bill is unlikely to touch emerging video platforms like Aereo, Thune said Congress should examine the role of online video in the marketplace. “It would help if Congress would get engaged ... and try to figure out what some of those rules should be instead of having the courts and the [Federal Communications Commission] do everything,” he said.

With Rockefeller’s retirement from Congress coming at the end of the year, Wednesday’s hearing could be his last most prominent opportunity to push for the kind of sweeping changes he thinks the country needs to make sure online services like Netflix and Hulu fit within the existing legal framework.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Commerce Committee joins with a Senate Armed Services subcommittee to talk about U.S. access to space. “Maintaining affordable, reliable, and sustainable space access across agencies and missions is of critical national importance,” the committee said.

Officials from NASA, the Pentagon and the Government Accountability Office will join space executives and analysts to look at ways to safely and effectively launch rockets while relying on a Russian engine.

Also that day, the Senate Special Committee on Aging will talk about “progress and potential solutions” for fighting phone scams, which can often take advantage of the elderly.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime takes a crack at cyber criminal networks known as botnets. The session comes days after Microsoft settled with a domain provider to stop a botnet, and after the Justice Department announced that it had successfully disrupted Gameover Zeus, a type of malicious software that nabbed people’s banking information.

Lawmakers on the Commerce panel sit down to talk about research and development investment on Thursday.

At the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), regulators, advocates and executives will talk about making sure people with disabilities can access social media all day on Thursday. Officials from Adobe and IBM will attend the workshop alongside organizations like the National Association of the Deaf, National Council on Disability and American Association of People with Disabilities.

Comments for the FCC’s plan for new net neutrality rules close on Tuesday. So far, the commission has received more than 640,000 messages on the contentious draft regulations, which have inflamed critics on both sides of the aisle.

The FCC’s chief technology officer will sit on a panel with industry and consumer advocates to talk about phone companies’ switch to all-Internet protocol (IP) systems at an Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event on Wednesday afternoon.

The Software and Information Industry Association will talk about ways to use “big data” to prevent fraud and help out consumers at lunchtime on Thursday.