Current Online

Senate trims 'public lane' on infopike

Originally published in Current, Aug. 22, 1994

The nonprofit sector's bid for a ''public lane'' on the information highway has been accepted as part of the Senate's big telecom restructuring bill, but the lane would be significantly narrowed.

The amended bill, reported out by the Senate Commerce Committee Aug. 11 [1994], reduces from 20 to 5 percent the maximum slice of a telecom system that would be reserved for designated nonprofits.

And that capacity would not be free, as proposed by the nonprofits and by Senate communications subcommittee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). However, eligible nonprofits, including public broadcasters, schools and colleges, would pay only the equivalent of the ''incremental cost'' of the capacity they use.

Other compromises apparently negotiated within the committee were more surprising, including a decision to remove state and local governments and Native American tribes from the list of users eligible for the reserved capacity.

While Inouye's proposal exempted broadcasters from having to reserve capacity, the provision inserted in S. 1822 also leaves out cable TV systems--which means that it applies only to breeds of broadband networks not yet operating.

Though the reserved capacity falls short of the 20 percent goal proposed by Inouye and America's Public Television Stations (APTS) and other nonprofits, APTS President David Brugger says he's glad to see that the bill gives stations a place on the info highway. ''It protects our access rights, and that's what we wanted.''

Just achieving the preferential rates would be ''a tremendous victory,'' says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education, a group that brought together the coalition of nonprofits that worked with APTS to draft and support Inouye's bill.

With Congress rushing to adjourn for election campaigns, the big Senate and House telecom bills have little more than a month to become law. Sens. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Robert Dole (R-Kan.) have said they're unhappy with aspects of the complex bill.

The only chance of enacting the bill will be to preserve the ''delicate balance'' of the many compromises, so major players aren't likely to undercut the bills in public, predicts Leslie Harris, public policy director of People for the American Way, a key backer of the bill.

In conference committee, the Senate bill will meet up with a House bill that directs the FCC to reserve unspecified transmission capacity for sale at ''preferential rates'' to certain nonprofits.

Advocates for the bill are trying to gauge how House members will react to the Senate provision. Jill Lesser of the Civic Media Project, a joint effort of People for the American Way and the Media Access Project, says House members haven't been fully lobbied by the nonprofit coalition because the House bill was shaped before the other nonprofits joined APTS in lobbying.

What the Senate bill would do

The Senate's new ''Public Rights-of-Way'' provision, Section 201B, would require owners and operators of telecommunications networks, other than cable, to reserve up to 5 percent of their capacity for eligible nonprofits in exchange for permission for them to use ''public rights-of-way,'' such as spectrum and cables buried under streets or hung over them.

Though state and local governments were removed from Inouye's list of eligible users, the list still includes public broadcasters (''public telecommunications entities''), elementary and secondary schools, higher education institutions, public and nonprofit libraries, and nonprofits formed to provide ''nondiscriminatory public access to noncommercial educational, informational, cultural, civic or charitable services.''

State and local governments may have fallen off the list, a nonprofit lobbyist spectulates, when telecom companies protested that government agencies would be a ''bottomless pit'' absorbing transmission capacity.

Eligible nonprofits would pay ''incremental-cost-based rates'' meaning that they 'd pay only the additional amount it costs the system operator to add the capacity in question.

As in earlier proposals, the FCC would be directed to figure out how much capacity would be reserved (''up to 5 percent''), how it would be allocated, and other details. Network owners and operators would have no control over or liability for the content of the programming. The transmission capacity would be used for services to the ''general public'' and couldn't be resold.


. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: Nonprofits testify in favor of Inouye bill, 1994.

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