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Telecom Committees in Congress Raise Universal Broadband Issues at Cable Forum

in Universal Service by

WASHINGTON, April 28, 2009 – Congress is unlikely to act on major broadband issues until after the August recess, aides to House and Senate committee chairs told attendees Tuesday at the American Cable Association summit here.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V. wants to work on “a host of pressing challenges” this year, said deputy chief of staff James Reid. Rockefeller and Sen. John Kerry, D-Ma., who chairs the newly constituted Telecommunications Subcommittee, are looking at a number of communications and media-related issues for consideration.

But Reid said Senate action is unlikely to go beyond hearings, with the exception of the Satellite Home Viewer Extension Reauthorization Act, which expires at year’s end. He blamed the current pace of Senate debate for the pessimistic outlook, “You need bills that can be done [on the Senate floor] in one or two days,” he said. But Reid added that the committee’s fall schedule had not yet been mapped out, leaving the possibility for new developments open.

On the House side, Energy and Commerce Committee Senior Counsel Tim Powderly said Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., was “singularly focused” on climate change legislation, and along with health care reform, would likely dominate the committee’s agenda until the memorial day recess. Except for SHVERA, there is “not a lot of room for other things,” he said.

Neil Fried, counsel to Ranking Member Joe Barton, R-Texas, agreed. “It’s going to be a while before we can really dig down into [telecommunications] issues,” he said.

Barton is particularly interested in reforming the Universal Service Fund, he said, but cautioned the $7.25 billion in broadband stimulus funds may “take some of the air out of the debate” on USF reform.

Fried said Barton worries that the stimulus program would turn into a continuously funded source, which he warned would “effectively double” the $7 billion Universal Service Fund.

But Reid said a comparison between the stimulus and USF is incorrect, and called the idea that stimulus funds are meant to improve residential access alone a “misconception…based on a very different concept of what unserved and underserved areas actually mean.”

Reid suggested a better solution for communities would be to create capacity for future development with so-called “middle mile” build-out. Powderly also concurred that stimulus funds could best be used to increase backhaul capacity for rural telecommunications providers.

Chairman Rockefeller hopes to hold confirmation hearings for FCC Chairman-designate Julius Genachowski and NTIA administrator Larry Strickling before Congress’ Memorial Day Recess, Powderly later said.

“We need to get going,” he said, adding that it was unfair for the nominations to be held up for reasons unrelated to qualifications.

But despite rumors that Genachowski would be joined by South Carolina Public Utility Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., Powderly said the White House has not given any indication it has vetted any others for the second open Democratic seat on the commission.

Previously an Assistant Editor at Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily, Andrew served as Reporter and Deputy Editor for BroadbandBreakfast.com until April 2010. Andrew helped produce and interview telecom and tech policy newsmakers for FastCompany.tv’s 2008 “Washington Week,” and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Communicators” series. His writing has also appeared in Linux Journal.

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