Congress Must Act Now to Stop TV Blackouts for Nearly 900,000 Americans

With time running short for this Congress, it’s gratifying to see that lawmakers are working furiously to wrap up their business in what can charitably be described as trying times. The American public and lawmakers are rightly focused on the impeachment inquiry, but lawmakers are also going ahead with “routine” business before time runs out.

Part of that routine business should be renewing the law I helped write in 1988 that allows all Americans to receive complete network programming on their televisions, by allowing households that cannot receive a signal from the local TV station to receive network programming by satellite. The Satellite Home Viewer Act has been effective and has been renewed every five years since it was first enacted. Its name has changed, and the language has evolved to reflect technological advances, but one thing has remained the same: Viewers nationwide can receive network programming from a local station when possible or from satellite delivery when necessary.

Today the law is called STELAR, and unless Congress acts, it will expire at the end of this year.

STELAR is a safety net. While online video streaming continues to increase in popularity for entertainment and news consumption, many Americans have yet to jump on the bandwagon. Many, including millions of rural residents, can’t because they lack a broadband connection. According to Pew Research, television is still the favorite platform for consuming news among Americans. What’s more, many highly popular entertainment programs are only available over network TV.

Allowing the law to expire will have a profound impact on Americans living in remote areas. There are at least 870,000 mostly rural people who will lose access to at least some network programming if STELAR is not renewed.

As a former lawmaker I know how hard it is to bring a bill to passage. I can appreciate what House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler has been trying to do with his version of a STELAR renewal bill, the Satellite Television Community Protection and Promotion Act (STCPP) of 2019. But, as much as I know the Chairman’s heart is in the right place, his bill doesn’t continue protections for the people who can’t get network programming; it undermines them.

Now, I’m sure this isn’t Chairman Nadler’s intent, but if the bill becomes law, in a mere six months it would remove network TV from hundreds of thousands of satellite customers who depend on STELAR to receive it today. Here’s who would lose: rural households that can’t get a signal over-the-air from the local broadcast station; recreational vehicle owners and commercial truckers; and viewers in so-called “short markets,” where a full complement of network affiliates is not found.

Chairman Nadler’s bill also unfairly favors one competitor over another in the satellite TV marketplace. The bill gives Dish a clear competitive advantage over its direct competitor DirecTV, by allowing only DISH to use the distant signal license to serve RV owners, truckers and customers in markets that lack all network affiliates.

This language grants Dish a “satellite monopoly” in the RV and commercial trucker marketplace, as well as in the short markets that broadcasters don’t serve. Lawmakers generally try to avoid intentional creation of monopolies. Surely, this will be the case now.

Additionally, the Congressional Research Service last week issued a report concluding that broadcasters will have more leverage to black out their signals if STELAR expires.

Thankfully, Sen. Roger Wicker is stepping up as a champion for STELAR reauthorization on the Senate side to ensure hundreds of thousands – mostly rural – American households maintain access to broadcast news and TV programming. A long list of organizations also supports renewing STELAR for another five years including consumer groups like Public KnowledgeFree Press, Common Cause and Consumer Reports. The list also includes union workers from the CWA and the IBEW; technology organizations including the Open Technology Institute, the National Grange, the Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership and CALinnovates. And the list includes nearly every RV association in America, from the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds to the Family Motor Coach Association.

These groups seldom agree with each other about anything, but what they do agree on is that the law known as STELAR needs to be reauthorized. Time is now growing short. The need for the distant signal license is as great today as it was three decades ago. Congress should act to meet that need now as it did then.

Rick Boucher was a member of the House for 28 years and chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet; he is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Sidley Austin.

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