Bill Backs Bells’ Challenge to Cable

WASHINGTON A bill to let telephone companies offer TV-like video services nationwide faces an initial public hearing on Thursday.

The Republican-backed measure is aimed at boosting the Bell companies’ challenge to cable. It would let companies such as Verizon and AT&T obtain national video licenses, called franchises. The companies then could offer multichannel video in any community, although localities would retain control over the rights-of-way where lines are laid. The companies would pay a 5 percent franchise fee.

The Bell companies have said obtaining franchises in thousands of communities would slow the introduction of their video services, which run over high-speed fiber lines. They point out that cable rates have dropped in areas with competition from wired services.

Their arguments are making headway on Capitol Hill.

“Competition drives down prices and encourages innovation,” said Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the House speaker, in a statement released late Monday along with a draft of the measure.

By issuing a comment even before the bill was introduced, Hastert was underscoring the support the measure is attracting from Republican leaders.

Top Democrats have refrained from issuing statements, indicating they may not support the measure at its initial hearing Thursday before the House telecommunications subcommittee.

The trade group for big cable companies issued a cautious statement. “We are pleased the national franchising scheme proposed in the House bill seeks to ensure all providers a level playing field,” said Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

The bill did not include provisions the group had earlier attacked, including those that would have barred cable from lowering prices to compete with the Bells, and that would have withheld from cable the national franchising option.