WASHINGTON, July 28 (UPI) -- One of the sponsors of a new telecommunications bill in the Senate said this week that only by opening broadband markets to greater competition will the United States remain a leader in the technology.
The Broadband Consumer Choice Act of 2005, introduced by Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., and John McCain, R-Ariz., calls for several updates to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to bring further deregulation to the telecom industry.
"Advances in technology have left the 1996 Telecommunications Act behind," said Ensign at a news briefing Wednesday. "This legislation that I am introducing today will transition us from a world of stifling government-managed competition to a consumer-controlled marketplace."
The bill's language argues that an increase in telecom options available to consumers is being restricted by an uncertain regulatory climate and a lack of market competition.
"Americans' ingenuity and creativity can provide more choices for consumers if government bureaucrats will get out of the way and allow our companies to compete," Ensign said in a news release accompanying the bill.
"Changes in technology necessitate that we update these rules if America is going to be competitive in the face of foreign competition," he told reporters at the briefing.
The United States currently ranks 16th in per-capita broadband penetration, according to the International Telecommunications Union. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development places the U.S. ranking at 12.
The BCCA contains numerous provisions that will affect what services and how much broadband access telecom companies can offer consumers.
"We're hoping that this bill is the impetus that will push forward updating and really modernizing the telecommunications law for the United States," Ensign said.
For example, if the bill passes, video-service providers no longer would have to pay for local franchises or build a network under government guidelines. Telecoms such as Verizon, which recently launched FIOS -- a fiber-optic Internet service -- and plans to offer video over the Internet, would be able to bypass the regulations and fees that cable TV companies have been required to observe.
At present, nearly 30,000 local authorities control cable franchises nationwide. New Jersey has 526 franchise authorities, making the development of a video network costly and time consuming.
"The Ensign bill puts consumers first by enabling people to choose from the expanding array of choices made possible by changes in technology and the marketplace," Peter B. Davidson, Verizon's senior vice president for federal government relations, said in a statement. "This bill recognizes that the world has changed and consumer driven markets work better than those managed by the government."
The bill also received support from Kyle McSlarrow, president and chief executive officer of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the principal trade organization of the cable industry.
"We commend Sen. Ensign for crafting legislation that seeks to promote competition and innovation and treats like services alike," McSlarrow said in a statement. "Consumers benefit when market forces are allowed to work and all providers, regardless of technology, can compete in the marketplace without government policies that pick winners and losers."
Paul Rodriguez, an NCTA spokesman, echoed McSlarrow's comments about creating a level playing field for service providers.
"Our central position is that like services should be regulated in like manner," Rodriguez told United Press International. "Telephone companies should not be given privileges that weren't given to us."
Kenneth DeGraff, a policy analyst with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, disagreed that the bill would give consumers additional choices or increase competition.
"The bill does a lot of things to solidify the cozy duopoly of the cable- and telephone-service providers," DeGraff told UPI. "Congress should approach the issues from a pro-competition standpoint, rather than a deregulation-at-all-costs standpoint."
DeGraff said the BCCA's guarantees that cable and telephone companies would not have to share infrastructure with third-party companies would limit competition and stifle innovation.
"AOL could never have been born today, because they were a third-party company using telephony infrastructure," DeGraff said.
The bill also includes a provision to keep service providers from blocking content to consumers, except in cases where the content is illegal or could affect the service itself.
"We can heartily endorse the Consumer Access to Content and Applications section that prevents the blocking of content," Art Brodsky, communications director for Public Knowledge, a public-interest advocacy organization in Washington, told UPI.
Brodsky took issue with the bill's provision that requires municipalities attempting to provide public broadband services to allow open bidding by private companies before launching their own service.
"We don't take a position on whether or not local government should or should not be involved in providing WiFi infrastructure," Brodsky said. "However, this falls in the realm of what local government can do and should not be restricted."
Ensign said the bill's deregulation provisions prevent local or state governments from gaining an unfair advantage in providing broadband service vs. the private sector.
"If a municipal government wants to provide broadband service and other services, this bill allows them to do that if the marketplace has not provided that service," Ensign explained. "However, it is my firm belief that government cannot innovate nearly as quickly as the private sector, and so the consumer will benefit if the private sector will provide these services."
DeGraff noted that many municipalities already are partnering with private companies to provide broadband and wireless access.
Along with provisions to ensure content access to consumers, the bill also guarantees access to third-party Voice over Internet Protocol services through a broadband provider.
K.I. Marshall is an intern for UPI Science News. E-mail: email@example.com