That thought kept running through my head as I was reading the proposal to allow AT&T to by-pass local control of franchises for cable television - especially since they could now today be offering 'competitive' plans to consumers across the state. Wading into and through the complex legal language is and always has been a chore. My brother is the lawyer, not me. And sometimes I'm not even sure what he says and/or means.
I wrote previously this week about this draft agreement. The plain fact is the plan does have some odd and downright wrong components. Keep in mind this bill was created to provide AT&T with a statewide cable franchise proposal, though there is much in the bill addressing the access to internet services, too.
For example, when it comes to verifying whether or not a franchise holder has attained the mandated deployment of broadband access to the internet, Section 12 (d) of the plan says that the state agency Connected Tennessee will be providing the information. I wrote recently about Connected Tennessee, since it's board members are former Bell South/AT&T employees. How handy the agency was created prior to this legislation - sure sounds like the fox watching the henhouse to me.
By the way, I wrote a few emails to Connected Tennessee's director, Michael Ramage some weeks back asking for some further details about the agency. But when I wrote asking for info on who is on their board as well as employees and contractors who were NOT previously with Bell South/AT&T I received no response.
A major concern among many is the concept of 'cherry-picking', allowing a provider like AT&T to simply offer services to the wealthiest of neighborhoods and ignore more rural and low-income areas. Under this new proposal, franchise holders would 'self-define' their areas of service. Also, a complex formula even allows for franchise holders to count households for their requirements twice or even four times whether or not that franchise actually offers service to them, just as long as someone does.
And there is no guarantee that Public Access, Education and Government channels would be in the most basic tier of channels. In other areas of the country, all PEG channels are lumped into one, and a viewer must call up a typically slow-running menu program and select a typically weak signal to tune in.
I also received an email from Bunnie Riedel of Riedel Communications, and former Executive Director of the National Alliance for Community Media, who has been reviewing and analyzing these franchise plans being pushed across the country state by state. She wrote that in reviewing the plans: "The worst bill to have passed is Nevada, TN's bill comes in 2nd to that one. AT&T is about to take TN on a nice long ride."
Her own blog is here. (My thanks to her for her input, and see below for her take on the most detrimental elements to the proposed plan.)
The Tennessee chapter of the National Alliance for Community Media is Keep It Local Tennessee. (CORRECTION: This TN group is not part of the NAM -- Please see the UPDATE at the end of this post!!!)
The more I read of this plan, the more it seems to be a program geared to look out for the interests of AT&T and not for consumers. We all want to be able to make a good choice when it comes to seeking services for cable and internet. The local franchise plans, and I know it's a complex process to make agreements one at a time, yet these local plans all demand service providers work hard to expand their service areas so that all residents of a community get that chance to make good choices. But it's rather obvious the state legislature has crafted a plan to serve the needs of business first and residents second. Given the solemn claim by Tennessee House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh to push this plan through, your voice and the voices of other Tennessee residents has little impact, and this proposal will likely become the law in Tennessee.
The following is from Bunnie Riedel of Riedel Communications, as she has been analyzing this state franchise issue for the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers, and is a selection of troubling elements found in the current draft of legislation in Tennessee:
- Certificate of Authority (CFA) holders self-define their service areas. In other words, AT&T can cherry pick where they will or will not provide service throughout the state or even within zip codes. This practice has taken place in Texas, Kansas, Indiana and other states, with AT&T choosing to obtain statewide franchises for very limited, mostly wealthy, areas.
- For the build out percentages, households that did not have access to the CFA holder’s broadband internet service count as two households and households that did not have any broadband service count as four households. This is deceptive because the definition for broadband in the bill is 1.5 Mbps. Therefore the actual percentage would be either 15% (two households) or 7.5% (four households).
- The bill’s broadband definition of 1.5 Mbps is inadequate. AT&T’s own website shows that at that speed it can be only used for emailing and downloading music.
- The CFA holder can count households that have broadband internet service toward their requirements to build out video or cable service, whether or not they offer those households video or cable!
- The bill sets up an organization influenced by the telecommunications companies, Connected Tennessee, as “verifiers” for AT&T’s broadband deployment. That is the fox watching the hen house. The Tennessee Regulatory Authority is then instructed to rely on Connected Tennessee’s reports and can only examine documents provided to them by Connected Tennessee….documents that were provided to Connected Tennessee by AT&T in the first place.
PEG CHANNELS SLAMMED FROM THE BASIC TIER, LOSS OF CHANNELS AND CHANNEL QUALITY AND LOSS OF PEG SUPPORT
- HB1421 details a convoluted formula for where PEG channels will be placed based on the number of channels activated by municipalities or counties in local franchise agreements. The bottom line is that the bill allows all PEG channels to be slammed out of the Basic Tier of service onto to any tier.
People who only purchase the Basic Tier will no longer receive PEG channels, unless they also purchase additional equipment.
- People who only purchase Basic Tier are typically lower income and the elderly.
- All channels are placed together on Channel 99, where viewers have to scroll through several menus to find their local PEG channels.
- The transmission of PEG channels is degraded to the same transmission quality as a cell phone video transmission.
-The channels take as long as 1 ½ minutes to “pull up.”
- They are not functionally equivalent to any other channel on the system.
- AT&T will not provide closed captioning or second language transmission for the PEG channels.
- Engineers say that AT&T can treat PEG channels exactly the same as any other channel, but choose not to do so for business reasons.
PEG support in the bill is woefully inadequate.
- The bill is written in such a way to make one think that CFA holders must provide up to 1% PEG support, however, that PEG support is limited to “paying capital costs of equipment.”
- PEG capital expenditures go beyond equipment to the “bricks and mortar” of PEG facilities and the cost of maintaining those facilities.
LACK OF REAL CUSTOMER SERVICE PROVISIONS
- While the bill says the CFA holders must comply with Federal Customer Service regulations (47 C.F.R. 76.309 (c)) it states that customer service complaints are to be handled in accordance with the service agreement contract between a customer and the video provider. What does that mean?
- Comcast customers across the country were forced to opt-in to arbitration and lost the right to seek court action (even small claims court) because Comcast changed the terms of the service agreement.
- Verizon customers in California have been told that if they wanted to pursue a claim, they would have to do so in the state of Virginia because that clause was included in their service contract.
- With this bill the CFA holders could put anything they wanted into the service contract, in the smallest print, and the customer would have no recourse.
- Further the TRA has no power to investigate or regulate customer service compliance by a provider, only to look at individual customer complaints.
UPDATE: I received the following email correction:
"Regarding your post, "Devilish Details" (http://cupofjoepowell.blogspot.com/2008/04/devilish-details-in-tn-cable-franchise.html), I see that you say:
"The Tennessee chapter of the National Alliance for Community Media is Keep It Local Tennessee. (http://www.keepitlocaltennessee.com/)"
This is not correct. There is no TN chapter of the ACM.
"Keep It Local TN" is the Tennessee version of a multi-state cable industry effort developed as a response to telco-inspired statewide video franchising legislation. There is also a "Keep It Local MA" (http://www.keepitlocalma.com/). There used to be a "Keep It Local PA" (http://www.keepitlocalpa.com/), but that site has been down for a couple months at least. I assume that's because the cablecos have now signed off on the legislation that has been filed in PA, although I've not been able to confirm that.
Actually, it's somewhat surprising that "Keep It Local TN" is still functioning, since the TN cablecos have also signed off on the new bill. While its most recent front page right column post is an April 7 press release from TCTA's Stacey Briggs supporting the bill, their front page left column is still calling for action opposing the bill!
Although the ACM links to all of these sites from our website because they support local channels and local control, they are not ACM chapters. There are also other state-based groups we link to in our "Saving PEG Access" blogroll, but they too are not ACM chapters. Our chapters are listed in the blogroll's second section, "ACM Affiliates."
Although there is no TN ACM chapter, there are a number of TN PEG access providers who are ACM members. I'm sure they'd be willing to speak with you about how this legislation will affect their communities. I hope you're able to include their perspectives in future posts. I've included them in the CC's, but they are:
Frank Bluestein, Germantown High School
Alan Bozeman, City of Murfreesboro
Gail Fedak, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro
Elliott Mitchell, Nashville
David Vogel, City of Knoxville
Again, thanks for continuing to call attention to this story.
Director of Information & Organizing Services
Alliance for Community Media