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FL: Phone, Cable TV Giants Battle

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Created 04/22/2007 - 7:41am

from: The Ledger [1]

Phone, Cable TV Giants Battle

By Lloyd Dunkelberger
Ledger Tallahassee Bureau
Sunday, April 22, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Cable companies are using the television airwaves to lobby against a bill that would make it easy for phone companies to compete in the cable market.

Phone companies are using their own high-priced lobbying campaign to promote the legislation.

Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, who is the middle of the cable fight, said he isn't fazed by the advertising blitz.

"This is a major, major consumer issue," he said. "And there's nothing wrong with the stakeholders communicating with the public about it."

What the well-oiled media campaign underscores is that there is a lot of money involved in providing cable TV, phone and Internet services to Floridians. Whether the regulation of that service will change will be decided in the next two weeks in the Florida Legislature.

There are more than 100 lobbyists working on the issue, representing clients such as BellSouth and AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and the Florida Cable Telecommunications Association.

The phone companies have already pushed a bill (HB 529) favorable to their industry through the House. But the cable lobbyists are trying for the second year to defeat the effort in the Senate.

The issue boils down to this: The phone companies want to dump the existing regulatory system where cable providers have to secure a franchise agreement with a local government before offering their services to customers. In Florida, that means they have to win approval from 67 counties and more than 400 cities for statewide service.

In place of the local agreements, the phone companies want a system that allows a statewide cable franchise that any company could apply for.

Senate Democratic leader Steve Geller of Hallandale Beach said both sides have valid arguments.

He said the phone companies make a good case by contending the existing cable companies have little land-based competition. If that competition were opened up through a statewide franchise system, it should drive down rates for consumers, he said.

But Geller said the cable companies have an equally valid argument. They contend giving the phone companies a statewide cable franchise will allow those providers to select - or "cherry pick" - the most profitable areas of the state.

That means the less desirable or more difficult areas to serve, like rural communities or low-income neighborhoods, may not get the same benefits.

The third major player in the cable fight is local government. And the cities and counties generally oppose changing the existing local franchise system, arguing they are better able to regulate the cable services.

Sarasota City Commissioner Fredd Atkins testified before a Senate committee last week that he was concerned that it will be more difficult for consumers to get help with problems if cable services are regulated in Tallahassee rather than at the local level. "Who will I call?" he asked.

Whether a phone company-backed cable bill emerges from the Senate this year may depend on whether supporters can get the bill to the Senate floor. The measure (SB 998) is scheduled to be heard Tuesday by the Senate General Government Appropriations Committee, the bill's last committee stop.

And Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said next week is the time for the major bills that feature turf fights between industries and special interest groups to be heard on the Senate floor.

Geller, who voted for the Senate bill in the Community Affairs Committee, believes the phone companies have a strategic problem with getting a favorable bill out of the 40-member chamber. The bill currently contains "anti-cherry picking" provisions.

"With the anti-cherry picking provisions, the phone companies don't like the bill," Geller said.

But Geller said if the phone companies manage to get those provisions changed, "I don't think they have the votes" in the Senate.

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