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Lawmakers Agree on Satellite Law

Added: (Tue Nov 23 1999)

Pressbox (Press Release) - By KALPANA SRINIVASAN Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Legislation now headed to the White House would let satellite companies carry local TV channels to millions of viewers and would crack down on the practice of cybersquatting.

The Senate approved the satellite measure and a host of attached provisions Friday as part of the massive budget bill. The legislation aims to boost satellite's position as a rival to cable by allowing satellite companies to beam local broadcast signals to customers using either pizza-sized satellite dishes or big
backyard'' dishes. Existing law bars companies from doing this.

A key piece of the bill also protects more than a million satellite subscribers now receiving local channels, who unless the bill becomes law face losing those signals by year's end.

Satellite companies would be able to start providing local stations as soon as President Clinton signs the bill into law. They then would have six months to reach required retransmission agreements with the networks. By 2002, companies that carry any local broadcast stations would have to carry all of them in a given market.

About 12 million people currently are satellite subscribers. The nation's largest satellite company, DirecTV, supports the legislation and said it expects to offer a satellite package with local broadcast channels to 50 million homes after the bill becomes law.

Another major satellite player, Littleton, Colo.-based EchoStar, says the bill provides no protection to satellite carriers from broadcast companies that could charge them more for programming than they do cable operators.

The bill had been held up in the Senate over a provision that would guarantee $1.25 billion in federal loans to companies that provide local broadcast signals in rural areas. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, opposed that language because he said only a few big corporations would benefit.

The provision eventually was dropped, but not before Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., wrangled assurances from Senate leaders that a separate loan guarantee bill would be considered and passed by the end of March.

Also removed from the satellite bill was language that explicitly prevented Internet companies from getting the types of blanket licenses cable companies can have to carry TV programming. That came after Internet providers, such as America Online, lobbied to have the provision cut.

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, warned Friday that even with the language gone, "it is quite clear, without ambiguity" that the so-called compulsory licenses don't apply to Internet providers.

The satellite bill also gives trademark holders and others recourse against people who in bad faith register or traffic in domain names that are identical to or confusingly similar to a distinctive trademark. Some so-called
cybersquatters'' then seek to sell the Wide World Web addresses for large sums of money.

Under the measure, trademark holders could sue for up to $100,000 in damages. Michael Heltzer, government relations manager of the International Trademark Association, said the bill "will put cybersquatters on notice: If you try to hold domain names ransom, you will be held accountable."

Such groups as the Domain Name Rights Coalition fear the legislation will threaten free speech. The coalition fears, for example, that people who want to register a complaint site about a company would be barred from using the company's name.

The legislation also would:

-Require patent promoters to disclose all terms of deals to inventors and guarantee inventors 17 years' protection after the Patent and Trademark Office grants a patent.

-Deny federal funds to any public broadcasting station that shares donor lists with political organizations.

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