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WI: Opinions split on cable TV bill

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Created 04/27/2007 - 8:45am

from: Sheboygan Press [1]

For the bill:
Against the bill:

Posted April 27, 2007

Opinions split on cable TV bill
Lower rates may also lead to less local control

By Eric Litke
Sheboygan Press staff

A state bill nearing approval that could lower cable TV rates may also take away nearly all local control of cable franchises, which has city officials worried.

The bill could also threaten the future of public access channels such as TV8 WSCS in Sheboygan, they say.

The proposal in the state Legislature has been painted as a competition-enhancing measure in an extensive advertising campaign financed in part by AT&T, which has hired 15 lobbyists to work the state Capitol and is seeking to become a bigger player in the state video market by offering subscription TV service over its phone lines.

But city officials and some legislators worry about the bill's effect on local municipalities — and ultimately, consumers.

"Whether it's going to be a good thing for the City of Sheboygan or not remains to be seen, but my first impression will be that it probably won't," said Sheboygan Mayor Juan Perez. "It just may end up ending the funding for local public access TV."

The bill, which will be up for a final vote in the Assembly early next month, would shift cable franchise control from local to state government, theoretically making it more convenient for new cable and video providers to enter the Wisconsin marketplace. A similar bill is working its way through the state Senate and has been referred to the Joint Finance Committee.

One group advocating the bill says it will reverse a national trend that over the last 11 years has seen cable rates nearly double while cell phone and long distance rates have plummeted.

"For consumers this means three things: better prices, better service and better access to technology," said Thad Nation, executive director of TV4US Wisconsin, a coalition whose members include AT&T. "The best possible solution is competition, because right now if a cable company does something you don't like, you really don't have a choice."

State Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake, a co-sponsor of the bill, said numerous amendments made to the bill will ensure both competition and customer service, and he said he expects the Legislature to approve the bill.

"We've had enormous public support for it from across the state … from people who want other choices," he said. "The end result for the consumer is almost assuredly going to be positive."

As it now stands, the bill's consumer protections include a 30-day notice of rate increases, a 45-day grace period before disconnection for unpaid bills, repair of service problems within 72 hours and credit for service outages of longer than 24 hours. But concerns remain over parts of the bill, notably one that expressly forbids the state from revoking a franchise agreement for any reason.

Susan Hart, a city mayoral assistant who oversees much of its current cable franchise agreement, said the public has been misled by proponents of the bill.

Hart said proponents have wrongfully blamed municipalities for rising cable rates, when federal regulations prevent municipalities from controlling rates or content. Giving the state control over franchisees would not affect the federal regulations, and Hart said any competition-related rate decreases would only be temporary.

Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said TV4US and the companies financing it have misrepresented what is really just a deregulation measure.

"The citizens have been persuaded that these … monopolistic enterprises are in favor of competition. You've got to be weak-minded to believe that," Thompson said. "We doubt that this bill is going to lead to additional competition."

Hart said the current municipality-run system allows other video service providers already, and AT&T is currently talking to the city about offering its U-Verse video service, which travels over existing telephone lines and includes 300 channels and 25 high-definition channels.

As for the impact on TV8, channel Director Keary Kautzer said it's too soon to know.

"We're hoping that the franchise money still comes in," he said.

Hart and Kautzer expressed concern that the new bill might leave TV8 responsible for paying its own transmission or infrastructure costs, which are currently covered under the franchise agreement with Charter Cable.

TV8 — which has operated in Sheboygan since 1982 — last year received about one-third of the $420,000 the city received in cable franchise fees from Charter, with the remaining funds used to purchase police squad cars, Hart said.

The new bill could actually increase the franchise fees slightly — as it will require cable, satellite and other video providers to pay fees now assessed only to cable companies — but it would eventually mean the end of a 23-cent per customer monthly charge in Sheboygan that goes directly to TV8 for equipment upgrades.

Rep. Terry Van Akkeren, D-Sheboygan, said he will not vote for the bill in its current form because of such negative impacts locally, but with some tweaks he said the bill could be a good thing.

"If it comes out in the form we'd like — and it has the consumer protection and the municipalities are protected with their franchise fees — then everybody's a winner on this," he said. "The competition will be there with the chance of really having lower rates and better service."

Reach Eric Litke at 453-5119 and

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