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FL: Bill would close loopholes for cable competition

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Created 04/15/2007 - 11:16am

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Bill would close loopholes for cable competition

By Walter Dartland
Originally published April 14, 2007

As consumer issues go, bringing competition and choice to cable is a goal that has been long in coming. Across the board, consumer groups have fought for years to give cable customers additional options. Unfortunately, the telecom industry has marshaled its considerable resources to hijack our hard work on cable choice to force through anti-consumer legislation under the false mantle of competition.

House Bill 529, approved with the vocal support of the telecom industry, would make it easier for new service providers to enter the cable market, but only at the high cost of real competition that benefits all Floridians.

In fact, the telecom industry's legislation would give new providers unprecedented authority to discriminate against consumers based on income - providing the latest technology to only the wealthiest communities and leaving the rest behind.

Under the House bill, build-out requirements are specifically prohibited, and new providers - which will largely be phone companies - are allowed to define the areas they want to serve. While the bill specifically excludes discrimination based on income, it lets new service providers substitute new service options with existing satellite technology in areas where the phone companies don't want to wire homes. In other words, moderate and low-income neighborhoods will be given the "choice" of a technology they already have, while people in gated and golf course communities will get head-to-head landline competition.

The House bill also removes local control. Why? Because phone companies complain they can't get video franchises due to cumbersome local processes. So they want to put the state in control of the franchise process and waive requirements that would protect all consumers under the guise of more competition. The reality is that cities and counties have the duty and responsibility to ensure that all members of the community are served. Their franchise agreements have build-out requirements and timelines to ensure equal access and enhance competition.

Fortunately, SB 998 was recently revised to include key pro-consumer provisions that close discrimination loopholes and prevent cherry picking. This is a very positive step for consumers, but we must remain vigilant to ensure that the provisions remain in the legislation as it makes its way to the governor's desk.

The telecom industry tells us that such specific anti-discrimination and build-out requirements are unnecessary and that it can be trusted to “do the right thing.” Surely we haven't forgotten the telecom industry's broken promises about rate hikes only two years ago.

Finally, the House bill adds barriers to the process of issuing a formal complaint. Customers would be required to go through mediation and then to the courts against opposition with unlimited resources. Can you afford a lawyer if mediation fails?

The best way to ensure accountability by these corporate giants and to maximize service quality is to place certification and enforcement authority in the hands of the Public Service Commission and the public counsel, who would represent consumers. A strong regulatory system, once assured, would encourage a migration of local control to state control.

Consumers have fought for too many years to settle for a bad cable competition law. We are getting closer to our goal, and the Legislature and Gov. Crist can be the ones that make it a reality by eliminating discriminatory loopholes; preserving the option of local control; and establishing proper, effective, consumer-friendly channels for consumer complaints.

Walter Dartland is executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast and lives in Tallahassee. Contact him at

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