South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune spoke Tuesday about legislation that would allow cable consumers to choose whether to pay for local broadcast television stations separately, similar to the way they can already pay for premium channels like HBO
Thune’s bill is called the Local Choice Act, sponsored with West Virginia Democratic Sen. John Rockefeller.
He described the bill as “an interesting way of busting loose from the current model,” under which broadcast stations negotiate retransmission fees with cable providers. When they fail to agree on a price, consumers suffer from either higher prices or “blackouts” of certain stations.
Thune pointed out that, “there are no requirements under federal law that cable channels must be carried, but there are for broadcast stations.” As a result, retransmission fees are passed along to all cable and satellite subscribers, regardless of whether they actually watch those stations.
The bill is also carefully structured to ensure that it does not interfere with consumer choice or raise the price of broadcast television.
“The way the bill is designed, consumers would have to opt out” of receiving local broadcast stations, Thune told reporters in his Washington office. It also preserves consumers’ “ability to get broadcast signals over the air for free,” which millions of people still rely on.
Moreover, those who wish to continue receiving broadcast stations will not be forced to pay extra, because they already pay for broadcast. “This would just give them a choice,” Thune said.
Thune also weighed in on the effort to extend a moratorium on taxing internet access, saying that although he prefers a permanent ban, “this will be hard in the current Congress.”
Because the current moratorium has an expiration date, Thune warned that, “people will see a tax increase unless Congress acts…and Democrats don’t let go of taxes very easily.” (RELATED: We Might See HUGE Taxes Just for Using the Internet, Thanks to Harry Reid)
To prevent that, he predicted that both sides may end up “swallowing hard” to forge a compromise bill acceptable to both the House and Senate.
Regarding the possibility that the FCC might decide to regulate the internet as a public utility, Thune said he is “hoping they won’t go there,” adding that, “the light touch approach that has been implemented so far has been effective.”
“In some ways,” he said the current debate might serve as “an argument for updating the Telecommunications Act,” because in the absence of direction from Congress, the FCC seems to be heading down the path toward excessive regulation. (RELATED: ‘Hands Off the Net’, Group Tells FCC)
However, he also cautioned that, “too often, when Congress tries to take on a complicated issue, they end up making it more complicated.”
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