Regs fight scrambles debate on satellite bill

Congressional Democrats are trying to slam the brakes on a legislative effort by Republicans to overhaul the rules and regulations for cable, satellite and broadcast television.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Communications, is pushing to attach a set of changes in communications law to “must-pass” legislation dealing with satellite television.


But Democrats argue Walden is rushing through a revamp of rules governing the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) that should be negotiated as part of a more comprehensive overhaul.

“Unfortunately, several of the provisions in this discussion draft do not embody the bipartisan values that have been the cornerstone of previous reauthorizations,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the panel’s ranking member.

“We have to be forward-thinking both in our approach to legislating and when we are going to dismantle something, which there is a provision in the draft that does so … we have to have an eye to the future. Before we dismantle, we should establish a framework for the future.”

The fight is centered around legislation that would reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), which allows satellite companies to provide broadcast channels like NBC, CBS and Fox to rural viewers who would not otherwise be able to pick them up with an antenna.

The existing authority expires at the end of the year, but Walden’s bill would give authorization for another five years, which is not controversial.  

But Democrats are bristling at Walden’s effort to include additional measures as a precursor to a broad update of the Communications Act. That law is the basis of the FCC's power to regulate cable, broadcasters and the Internet, but hasn’t been changed since 1996. Under Walden’s direction, the Energy and Commerce Committee began a rewrite of the law earlier this year.

“Our draft finds the right balance,” Walden told a hearing room packed with TV industry executives and lobbyists. “Our work here is set against the backdrop of our larger effort to update the Communications Act and bring our communications laws in line with the innovation and dynamism of the communications marketplace.”       

Walden’s satellite bill would end an FCC requirement that both rented and store-bought TV set-top boxes include a descrambling device. It would also limit the commission from writing new rules to limit broadcasters from teaming up together for negotiations, among other measures.

“These are, I think, well-considered, deregulatory reforms — the type of intelligent reforms that the committee and the Congress should think about” during the larger effort to update the Communications Act, said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Democrats on Wednesday pushed back, arguing the proposed reforms went too far. They said debates about regulations should be left to the broader debate over comprehensive reform.

“I’m pleased that we’re beginning this legislative process,” said Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.). “However, I am surprised that unlike the past, our legislative starting point is not a bipartisan, narrowly tailored bill.”

Previous bills to reauthorize STELA might have included some additional provisions, noted Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the full committee, but those were “part and parcel of the purpose of the law.”

“Today we’re considering a different kind of bill," he said, which would "hamstring" the FCC.

Before Walden unveiled his draft bill last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced the commission would consider placing restrictions on broadcasters that get together to pool advertising resources, a practice critics say lets companies exploit a legal loophole in the FCC's media ownership rules.

But the commission is years late on a 2010 review of its ownership regulations. Walden’s bill calls for that study to be finished before any new rules are issued.

“All we’re saying is do your job, follow the law before you go out there picking and choosing on the [joint sales agreement] issue that can have enormous disruption,” Walden told reporters after the hearing.

Public interest advocates have worried that Walden's provision could lead to more consolidation in the market and reduce competition.

The other contentious measure in Walden’s draft bill is a call to end the FCC’s requirement that both rented and purchased TV boxes include security devices called a CableCARD. The change would have the biggest impact on companies like TiVo, which fear they would be left behind as cable companies move to new technologies.

“Consumers should be able to use whatever device they choose to access video programming, just like they can use whatever computer, telephone or cell phone they want to utilize the Internet or wireless networks,” Matt Zinn, a senior vice president at TiVo, told lawmakers.

Cable companies have complained that the requirement to include the cards has cost them $1 billion and restrained innovation.

The House panel is just the first of four committees to review a possible STELA reauthorization. The Senate Commerce Committee and the House and Senate Judiciary panels also need to sign off on a bill. 

Walden said he hoped for a markup in his committee this spring.

“My preference would be to move sooner rather than later because we know the Senate doesn’t move much beyond glacial speed,” Walden said. “So we need to go ahead.”