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Thursday, November 26, 2009

What's Cooking?.

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What's the difference between a high-powered telecom lobbyist in Washington these days and a Maytag repairman? Answer: The Maytag guy is much busier -- plus, he always gets his calls returned.

For the first eight months of the Obama administration, communications policy has been on the back burner -- if not in cold storage -- as policymakers focused on bigger ticket items such as the economy, energy and health care.

That could soon change as Congress and the FCC turn their attention to several tech-related matters left unresolved from the last administration. With lawmakers back in town and a full complement of agency regulators in place, several long-percolating issues are ready to boil, ensuring that the legendary Maytag repairman reclaims his rightful perch as the loneliest man in town. Here's a breakdown:

Broadband Blitz:

Money Milestone -- The Agriculture and Commerce departments will make preliminary announcements as early as Monday about recipients of the first wave of subsidies -- $1.6 billion -- under the $7.2 billion broadband stimulus program. Final announcements of first-round winners will come in November and December. The loans and grants will be used to extend high-speed Internet service to mostly rural areas.

Status Report -- The FCC's September public meeting is expected to feature an update on the agency's effort to devise a sweeping national broadband strategy, to be unveiled in February. Blair Levin, the regulator overseeing the work, provides a preview when he delivers a Thursday keynote at a telecom policy event at the National Press Club.

Camp Broadband -- Next month, the FCC wraps up the last of more than two dozen public workshops that began Aug. 6 to assist with developing the broadband plan. The latest session -- devoted to the "consumer experience" -- will be held today. Coming soon: nationwide field hearings.

Cable Cap Flap: Comcast scored a major coup recently when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit tossed out an FCC regulation barring any one cable system from reaching more than 30 percent of pay-TV households. Comcast, now at about 25 percent, argued that increased competition rendered the limit unnecessary. Cable's critics vowed to seek Supreme Court review of the decision or urge Congress to pass legislation to lower cable rates and require more programming packages.

House Calls: The House Energy and Commerce Communications Subcommittee, headed by Rep. Rick Boucher , D-Va., will hold a hearing Thursday on the broadband stimulus program and -- according to a telecom insider -- a Sept. 17 session on FCC oversight. The hearings will give Boucher a chance to question Larry Strickling, new chief of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration; Jonathan Adelstein, the former FCC member who now heads the Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service, and all five FCC regulators.

Performance Fees: Broadcasters catching their collective breath from their protracted switch to digital television signals are bracing for another challenge: legislation gathering steam to require radio stations to compensate performers for airing their songs, ending a longtime royalty exemption. Broadcasters insist the airtime benefits musicians and that the fees could put stations out of business, while the recording industry insists radio must pay to play.

Promises, Promises: FCC guidelines aimed at preserving a "neutral" Internet were introduced as voluntary steps. Yet the agency enforced them last year when it reprimanded Comcast for impeding access to bandwidth-heavy sites that let users share movies, music and other content. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is expected to hold oral arguments in late fall on Comcast's challenge to the FCC's authority to enforce the guidelines.

Rockefeller's Secret Agenda: During a closed door, off-the-record breakfast this summer, two of Senate Commerce Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller 's top aides said the lawmaker would hold a fall hearing on oversight of the broadband stimulus effort and another session on the Satellite Home Viewer Act, a law expiring Dec. 31 that governs the transmission of broadcast signals via satellite. They also said he's continuing to draft a major cybersecurity bill.

Wireless Wars: The FCC, which initiated a review of the mobile phone industry in August, is under pressure from Congress to limit or end exclusive deals between wireless carriers and handset manufacturers. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has hinted that the agency might take steps to provide more choices to rural consumers. Meanwhile, Rockefeller and Commerce member Amy Klobuchar , D-Minn., are crafting legislation to tackle the issue.

Universal Headache: Boucher is drafting legislation to overhaul the federal fund subsidizing telecom service in low-income and rural areas. But industry experts don't expect serious action until well after the FCC completes its broadband plan next year, which is likely to recommend revising the fund to include subsidies for broadband.

As for the proverbial Maytag repairman, he was unavailable for comment, and a spokesman revealed why: He was out trying to upgrade his cellular phone and broadband services.

Source Citation
Hatch, David. "What's Cooking?" Congress Daily AM 9 Sept. 2009. Academic OneFile. Web. 26 Nov. 2009. .


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