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Overhaul of '96 Communications Act gains momentum

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 1:42pm
Brian Santo

The prospects for updating the 1996 Communications Act seem to have improved with the endorsement of the idea of two key Congressman.

Representatives Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Greg Walden, chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, said that the update is desperately needed during a Google chat that was also attended by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell.  

The two refrained from offering any details.

That may have been wise given that many of the provisions in the Act that one industry subgroup complains about also benefits some rival subgroup. The battle over how to reform retransmission consent, which benefits broadcasters to the detriment of MVPDs – especially the smaller ones – is going to be only one bitter example.

Indeed, Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat, quickly responded with advice to his two colleagues, both Republicans, suggesting they proceed with caution: "Changes should not be made simply for change’s sake, but rather based on clear and documented need," Dingell said in a statement. "We should approach this in a balanced fashion in order to preserve and promote American leadership in the telecommunications industry."

Rep. Steve Scalise backed revisiting communications laws, harking back not only to the 1996 Communications Act, but to the 1992 Cable Act. Noting that Congress has been in the process of reviewing communications regulations, he said, “ It is abundantly clear from the Members and witnesses at committee hearings that the 1992 Cable Act was written for a different era, and technological advancements in this competitive marketplace have rendered the law obsolete. I look forward to working with Chairmen Upton and Walden, and Ranking Member Eshoo to promote consumer choice and economic growth at every available opportunity in this new age.”

NCTA President & CEO Michael Powell chimed in with a generic statement of support: “We have 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.  We are prepared and pleased to work with Chairmen Upton and Walden and the entire Committee to carefully re-examine the aging Communications Act.”

The American Television Alliance reminded that while overhauling the Communications Act is a laudable goal, the process is going to take years, and the current regulatory regime is broken right now. “…Consumers are being forced to endure a record number of television blackouts, including another one just today.  Fortunately, there is true bipartisan support and momentum for reforming retransmission consent immediately. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have called for retrans reform within STELA and we urge Chairman Upton, Rep. Walden, and the rest of Congress to continue down that path.”

STELA is the Satellite Television Extension Of Localism Act, which is up for reauthorization. STELA’s main purpose is to regulate the ability of direct broadcast satellite (DBS) distributors to carry out-of-market local signals. There is some support from groups such as the American Cable Association to use the reauthorized bill as a vehicle for some early reform on retransmission consent rules.

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