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STELAR Act reauthorization should top Congress’ year-end list

Many rural Americans could otherwise lose access to at least some network TV

As many as 870,000 people — most living in rural areas — would lose access to at least some broadcast network signals if Congress does not renew the STELAR Act before Dec. 31, Boucher writes. (iStock)
As many as 870,000 people — most living in rural areas — would lose access to at least some broadcast network signals if Congress does not renew the STELAR Act before Dec. 31, Boucher writes. (iStock)

For lawmakers, autumn means time is running out. As Congress faces a spate of frenetic activity compounded by the impeachment inquiry, the focus inevitably turns to the must-pass bills lawmakers need to act on this year. My advice? Put the reauthorization of the STELAR Act at the top of that list to guarantee that everyone with satellite TV continues to have access to network programming.

A lapse in the law, which expires at the end of the year, would have a profound impact on Americans living in remote areas. By current estimates, as many as 870,000 people — most living in rural areas — would lose access to at least some broadcast network signals if Congress does not renew the STELAR Act before Dec. 31.

The origins of the law date back to the late 1980s when I was a congressman from a rural Virginia district. Many of my constituents could not receive complete network programming over the air from local broadcast stations. Some rural markets only had one or two local television stations, and even in markets with local affiliates for all the major networks, the mountainous terrain greatly limited television reception.

Satellite TV companies were interested in providing out-of-market network signals to unserved households, but they could only do so if Congress amended the copyright laws to provide a statutory license. So in 1988, Oklahoma Democratic Rep. Mike Synar and I drafted the necessary legislation and convened stakeholder negotiations among satellite carriers and broadcasters.

In a breakthrough compromise, the local broadcast industry agreed that an out-of-market, distant network signal could be delivered by satellite to TV viewers who could not receive network programming from a local station by means of a conventionally mounted rooftop antenna. That principle was embodied in 1988 in the Section 119 distant signal license.

To accommodate broadcaster concerns about how the Satellite Home Viewer Act would be implemented, we placed a hard, five-year sunset on the distant signal license, giving Congress an opportunity to evaluate the law’s effectiveness and either extend, modify or allow it to lapse. Since 1988, at the expiration of each five-year period, the law has been extended and, due to the advent of technology and changes in the marketplace, modified.

Each extension has resulted in a catchy new name for the law, including the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999, the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act, or STELA, in 2010, and the STELAR Act in 2014. Whatever the name, the principle has been the same: to ensure that satellite television subscribers can receive local network programming where possible and distant network programming where necessary.

Each renewal of the law has been controversial. While the broadcast industry supported passage of the original law, it has been strongly opposed to each five-year extension. This year is no different. But since 1988, Congress has heeded the need of hundreds of thousands of rural residents to receive a full complement of network programming, and it should do so again. Most of those viewers are unserved households, while some are recreational vehicle owners and long-distance truck drivers who, through the statutory license, also have access to out-of-market signals.

While the world is changing and over-the-top, or OTT, media services are delivering content to many Americans via broadband, network television programming remains highly popular and highly valuable. According to Pew Research, television is still the favorite platform for news consumption among Americans, and many highly popular entertainment programs are available only over network TV. A lapse in the distant signal license would turn a significant American population into have-nots for vital television programming.

With the rapid flow of news and only about 30 legislative working days remaining on the 2019 calendar, lawmakers may seem somewhat pressed to meet a crush of needs simultaneously. But every five years since 1998, Congress has respected the needs of rural Americans to receive the full complement of network programming. It should find the time to do so again, so come January, hundreds of thousands of Americans don’t go without.

Rick Boucher represented Virginia’s 9th District as a Democrat from 1983 to 2011 and is a former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. He is the honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Sidley Austin.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday on the reauthorization of the STELAR Act.

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