Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Battle Intense on Flawed Cable Franchise Change

Once again today, state legislatures take up the issue of some very unwise changes to how cable franchises are provided and regulated. It's been the single most dollar-gulping lobby effort this year in state government, with current spending at just over $4 million. (And that's just the amount as of April of this year.)

Other reports note how intense the battle has become:

TV4US [an AT&T lobbying firm] has completed two resident mailings. One mailing included an 11-by-5 inch postcard carrying a tear-off postcard to be mailed back to the group. On April 3, the group delivered 14,000 of these return postcards to state legislators. The cards asserted that cable rates have gone down 28% to 42% in communities where competition exists. The cited source is a January 2006 Bank of America Equity Research study. The card asserts that reform laws in other states have brought lower prices and better services.

“The message is completely wrong,” said Stacey Briggs, executive director of the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association. The TCTA and municipal groups such as the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors are critical of such statements, questioning whether those rate estimates include unpublished, short-term acquisition rates. Cable incumbents also note that telephone companies, in discussing their video plans, state they don’t intend to compete on price.

Briggs said 18,000 visitors to the site have opted to send an e-mail or a fax to legislators, arguing against the telco-friendly bills pending in both chambers there.

Two weeks ago, TV4US supporters passed out pink plastic pigs in the legislative plaza in Nashville. The message: When pigs fly, cable rates will go down. Briggs said the effort played upon “consumer misconceptions” that alternative providers will charge lower rates. Few legislators are citing rate cuts as a reason to pass franchising reform, however, he said."

Today, and hopefully not too late, I sent an email expressing my strong opposition to the bill to Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee Chairman Senator Steve Southerland. While earlier emails with the Senator contained some doubts the bill would pass, he has over the last few weeks, supplied 10 amendments to the bill which seem aimed at insuring it's passage.

This is the email I sent:
Dear Sen. Southerland,

I appreciate your previous responses to my emails regarding the proposed change of state law for cable franchises. I remain completely opposed to this new law, for reasons detailed below.

However, I must first express some disappointment and confusion that all the amendments to the Senate bill 1933 were sponsored by you, as you sit as the Chairman of the Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee. Rather than standing opposed to this new proposed legislation, you seem to have added 10 amendments which instead attempt to encourage support for the bill.

Countless city governments, county governments (including Hamblen), and organizations like the Tenn. Municipal League have all adopted resolutions in clear opposition to this bill's passage -- did these same groups contact you and ask you to amend the bill for easier passage?

I note that while your amendments did include sections which would not hand over local control of rights-of-way controls, the language does include requirements that any customer must first file complaints about cable service to a city or county government, which would then forward the complaint to the cable provider, and that mediation would then move to the courts if resolutions could not be found. The state, which seeks by this bill to take franchise authority away from local control, is then utterly absent from addressing concerns of customers, putting all burden on local government.

Since locals would then be the ones responsible for any court costs in a losing effort, the locals would have little interest in pursuing such cases. The state, as these amendments make clear, provide no oversight to this plan for state-licensed franchises.

The current laws also require cable franchise holders to develop plans and strategies to expand, or build out, their services to insure the broadest and most comprehensive availability of services. This new bill eliminates such efforts. Since more and more businesses and communities must have internet access in order to compete in our growing global marketplace, to remove such incentives and guarantees will, I fear, only insure that the most rural of areas will be lacking. Rural areas, Senator, are your constituents, those you should be serving.

Also, as written, current cable and internet providers who have local franchise agreements, would now be able to make a state franchise agreement which would also eliminate the requirements to further or continue their efforts to expand services within a service area. How is such a change a benefit to residents and customers?

Could please explain why you found it necessary to add these 10 amendments, which seem aimed at shoring up support for this unwise legislation? Similar bills submitted to states nationwide have failed more often than they have succeeded.

Thanks for your time and your replies to my emails,
Joe Powell

NOTE: The TML Newspaper reports that a condition on build outs was added to the bill by amendment,however, as they report:

""The amendment only required to provide video to 25 percent of the households in which it provides telephone service. This minimal requirement could be fully satisfied by offering service
in just two of the state’s largest markets; providing no assurances
or protections for the remainder of the state. Moreover, the
build out amendment adopted last week does not provide for
any penalty should AT&T fail to meet this meager requirement."

A link to the Senate directory is here.
A link to the House directory is here.

1 comment: