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WI: Decision coming for franchise bill

By saveaccess
Created 04/24/2007 - 6:46am

from: Badger Herald [1]

Decision coming for franchise bill

by Keegan Kyle
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

City officials across Wisconsin will watch the state Legislature closely this morning as it may pass a bill that would reshape the distribution of revenue-sharing agreements with cable, satellite and other broadcasters.

The proposed franchise bill would give the State Department of Financial Institutions the power to grant unending statewide video franchises — a revenue-sharing agreement currently handled by local municipalities.

Some city officials have opposed the bill, saying it would undermine the current funding system for public access channels and would cut their ability to ensure local customer service standards.

“I think cities are worried about losing the ability to control the ground rules for which all companies must follow,” said Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

Supporters of the legislation say streamlining the process will be a good thing. Some legislators and video industry advocates have said the bill would increase cable competition by allowing providers to more easily enter new markets and said it would eventually lower cable rates.

The bill has gained large support in the state Legislature, moving swiftly through both Assembly and Senate committees last week with only Rep. Tony Staskunas, D-West Allis, voting against the bill.

According to his legislative aide, Staskunas was concerned the Assembly’s version of the bill would hurt funding for public access channels and thought the bill was being rushed through without much discussion.

Assembly and Senate leaders in support of the bill have placed it on today’s floor agenda for discussion and possibly passage, though some remain uncertain whether it will pass after receiving several amendments.

Josh Wescott, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson, D-Beloit, also said the bill may be moved to the Joint Finance Committee — currently creating its version of the state budget — if the video franchise bill is deemed to have significant financial implications.

Although opposed to the bill, Thompson said he believes it will pass the Legislature since it has a lot of consumer and corporate pressure behind it.

“The mere fact that this is moving tells you just how much force is behind this bill,” Thompson said, because the Legislature usually sets aside high-profile bills until after the state budget has been completed.

Telecommunications giant AT&T has been the largest lobbying group on the legislation, according to reports by the State Ethics Board. The company recently released its new video product “U-Verse” across the country and is currently developing service in the Milwaukee and Racine metro areas.

AT&T has not announced whether it will offer its new service to Madison, but no law prevents the company from negotiating an agreement with city officials. Under law, municipalities may not create cable monopolies, but competitors are often deterred from entering a market controlled by one dominant provider.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, although not especially involved with the bill, has stated his support after committees restored consumer protections currently applied to all cable companies and extended the protections to video and satellite service providers.

Carla Vigue, a spokesperson for Doyle, said the governor supports the current legislation because more competition is good for the industry and the consumer.

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