WI: Consumers helped by cable bill

Posted on April 18, 2007 - 11:28am.

from: Madison.com

Consumers helped by cable bill

Jeff Richgels
The Capital Times

Consumer protections such as mandated credits for extended outages would not be eliminated under an amended version of a controversial cable TV bill that passed a state Assembly committee on Tuesday.

In addition, the consumer protections would be extended to customers of satellite TV providers for the first time.

The "Video Competition Act," which would take cable franchising out of the hands of local municipalities and make it a state matter, is scheduled to be taken up by the full Assembly next Tuesday.

Barry Orton, a UW-Madison professor of telecommunications who advises many communities in their dealings with cable companies, has been a fierce critic of the bill but offered guarded praise after the amendments, several of which he said improved the bill "significantly."

"It moved it back to where it should have been, but it ain't done yet," said Orton, who called the expansion of consumer protections to satellite providers "huge."

However, it's unclear if satellite providers DirecTV and DISH Network, which don't have to reach franchise agreements, can be forced to comply.

Other amendments increased the revenue base upon which franchise fees paid by cable operators will be calculated, added some protections for local public access channels, and allowed the state Department of Financial Institutions to engage in limited rulemaking and oversight on the qualifications of applicants for a state video franchise.

Under the amended bill, consumers would be entitled to credit on their cable TV bills when an outage lasts 24 hours or longer -- the law currently mandates credit for outages of four fours or more -- a 30-day notice of rate increases, a 45-day grace period before disconnection due to unpaid bills, and the right to repairs within 72 hours.

The state Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection will handle consumer protection.

Orton predicted the changes could double state franchising costs, which originally were estimated at about $500,000.

Advocates for the bill say it is needed to spur competition in cable TV in Wisconsin.

Despite the amendments, not all lawmakers were satisfied. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported today that Rep. Tony Staskunas, D-West Allis, said he plans to introduce an amendment next week that would let existing franchise agreements between municipalities and cable companies continue until competition in a market actually exists.

Also on Tuesday, the Milwaukee Common Council approved a three-year deal with AT&T that would treat its "U-Verse" Internet TV service much like rival Time Warner Cable, the Journal Sentinel reported.

The agreement calls for AT&T to pay the city 5 percent of its gross U-verse revenue as a license fee, plus another 2 percent to fund public access, educational and governmental programming. It also requires the company to provide the service to 25 percent of the households in the metropolitan area within three years, and for low-income households to make up at least one-quarter of those served, the paper reported.

E-mail: jrichgels@madison.com
Published: April 18, 2007

( categories: State Franchises | WISCONSIN )