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FL: NAACP chief: Beware telecom bill that could hurt poor neighborhoods

By saveaccess
Created 04/13/2007 - 1:32pm

from: Orlando Sentinel [1]


NAACP chief: Beware telecom bill that could hurt poor neighborhoods

Randolph Bracy Jr.
April 13, 2007

I am puzzled by legislation coming through the Legislature that major telephone companies are pushing to bring cable-television services into our neighborhoods. From where I sit, members of the Legislature should be looking under the hood and kicking the tires, for if they do, they would find that this legislation represents a step forward and two steps back.

Indeed, the new telecom legislation pushed by the telephone companies seeks an odd kind of arrangement in which two major telephone companies would enter the cable-television business if the local "non-discrimination" rules were repealed. Current law ensures that all our neighborhoods get access to the new fiber networks that are the bridge to the Information Age for all of our citizens. Given the ever-expanding digital divide in Florida -- the gap between those who have access to digital technology and those who do not -- the promulgation of this bill into law would represent a serious step backward. Here's how:

Current rules require that any cable-television service provider negotiate local franchise agreements with local officials. Federal law gives those local officials the right to ensure that all communities -- and not just the cherry-picked, wealthy ones -- in a local franchise area are properly wired for the next generation of broadband and cable-television services.

Nationally, federal law represents the only broadband policy. It has ensured that the cable industry invest more than $110 billion in fiber upgrades, and resulted in nearly every community in Florida getting access to broadband services.

To be sure, the telephone companies have an uphill battle in convincing the Legislature that the non-discrimination rules should be repealed. Nevertheless, their high-paid public-relations firms have come up with clever tactics to sell their position. First, they have said that the legislation is needed to cut the red tape of local bureaucracy. Second, they have inserted illusory "non-discrimination" language to deflect attention from the bill's textual reality. Both arguments appear as ruses to confuse the people.

Further, the sponsors of this legislation have tried to pretend that the non-discrimination rules are really not being repealed. Unlike current provisions that give local officials the tools to ensure that all neighborhoods in a community are wired, the telephone-sponsored legislation would apply the non-discrimination rules to communities selected by them for service. In other words, it would be entirely permissible to red-line a poorer, African-American community like Parramore entirely so long as the telephone company did not discriminate within a rich community like Isleworth. This is like saying that a bank's non-discriminatory lending rules apply only to residents in Richmond Heights, but not to residents in Baldwin Park. As a result, the so-called non-discrimination provision actually would encourage cherry picking and red-lining.

Finally, the telephone companies have said they will not "engage in a price war" with incumbent cable companies. The nub of the matter is that this legislation would allow the powers that be to red-line with little prospect for any price competition.

I would embrace the entry of telephone companies into the cable-television business, but the legislation must be a win-win for all consumers that would seek to bridge the breach rather than widen the digital divide.

The Rev. Randolph Bracy Jr. is the president of the Orange County branch of the NAACP.

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