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Web firms fight for right to Net TV

A fierce last-minute congressional battle erupts over the future of Internet television, offering a hint of the ambitions of firms like America Online and Yahoo.

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A fierce last-minute congressional battle has erupted over the future of Internet television, offering a hint of the ambitions of firms like America Online and Yahoo.

The companies are protesting a provision in a proposed bill that would essentially bar them from transmitting local television content, such as sports events or news programs, over the Web.

The Net companies won't go so far as to say they already have plans to compete with local and cable TV stations, but do say that their options shouldn't be limited prematurely. Having already passed House review, the Senate is scheduled to debate the issue later today.

"The industry doesn't think it makes sense for Congress to close any doors, especially when there hasn't been any public airing or debate over the issue," AOL spokeswoman Kathy McKiernan said. "No one knows what the future holds."

Although the quality of today's streaming media pales in comparison to television, companies such as AOL, Microsoft and Excite@Home are busily preparing services that mix television and Internet content.

Technological advances and the deployment of high-speed Internet access services like cable and digital subscriber line (DSL) could soon make Net television a reality. Already US West and several other companies are testing video-on-demand and cable TV-like services over DSL, a technology that provides high-speed Net services over telephone lines.

Satellite distribution services and Net caching technologies also have helped streaming video companies avoid network bottlenecks that make high-quality Web video difficult.

The bill now before the Senate includes a provision that would bar any "online digital communications service" from qualifying for a license for local TV content. That provision would essentially protect cable companies and copyright holders, who worry that the advent of Net television could cut into their business.

"The retransmission of television and radio programming by an online service based in Virginia is equally accessible to Internet users…anywhere else the Internet reaches," a coalition of cable TV, movie and sports associations wrote in a letter to legislators last week. "What is delivered to each online recipient…can be downloaded, copied, and redisseminated without limit."

The main thrust of the pending bill is to give satellite TV companies the ability to distribute local television content, a void that analysts say has muted their consumer appeal.

Net companies have put pressure on federal lawmakers, saying that the controversial provision was added without debate or public hearing. Other firms say the provision will put communications firms like the Baby Bells in a difficult position.

"[The bill] would be bad for two reasons," Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Susan Butta said. "We have bulk arrangements with companies like AOL, so it would be bad for our DSL program. We also have our own ISP."

Butta said she was not aware of any immediate company plans to begin offering broadcast television-like service.

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