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WI: Don't fall for propaganda on cable franchise bill

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Created 04/27/2007 - 9:38am

from: The Capital Times [1]

Charles Uphoff: Don't fall for propaganda on cable franchise bill

By Charles Uphoff

Is the Wisconsin Legislature being hijacked?

Lobbyists for telecommunications giant AT&T have been pressuring Wisconsin legislators to pass sweeping changes in the laws regulating cable TV with a million-dollar media campaign and behind the scenes arm-twisting that would make Karl Rove blush.

Under the guise of promoting increased consumer choice, lower cable rates and high-paying union jobs, AT&T is trying to steamroller bills that would prohibit any meaningful regulation of video service rates; eliminate funding for public access, educational and government channels; and effectively guarantee statewide franchises for the telecom giant in perpetuity.

Among the more astonishing features of this dubious legislation is a provision that specifically prohibits the state or local municipalities from reviewing franchise transfers. While initial applicants would have to establish their legal, financial and technical qualifications to obtain a statewide franchise, once granted, statewide franchises can be literally transferred to anyone -- even politicians. Video franchise holders wouldn't even have to inform the affected communities until 10 days after the transfer had been completed.

OK, it's probably just an oversight but why is there so much resistance to slowing the process down and making reasonable changes that would strengthen and improve this so-called Video Competition Act? The bill, AB 207, was passed by the Assembly on Tuesday but approval in the Senate was temporarily put on hold by a referral to the Joint Finance Committee, where some additional amendments are anticipated.

Staff for the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Utilities and Rail, Democrat Jeff Plale, D-South Milwaukee, who has acknowledged receiving contributions from AT&T, said they have been working to improve the bill but have been told that if they push for any more changes, all deals are off and the Assembly will pass the bill as introduced and amendments restoring consumer protection provisions and even the most modest regulatory oversight would be gone. Other members of the Senate Democratic caucus, like Mark Miller, Kathleen Vinehout and Fred Risser, have been working hard to fix the bill.

So how about the claim being made in the TV ads that cable rates have gone up 246 percent and the "Video Competition Act" would increase choice and save consumer millions? It sure sounds good, but these assertions are, at best, misleading. In the city of Fitchburg, for example, the basic cable rate has risen less than 6 percent over the past 10 years and is currently at $8.19 a month. Admittedly, premium packages have risen much more sharply, largely driven by the cost of content providers like the NFL Network, MTV and ESPN, but AT&T would be facing the same kind of costs if they want to include these offerings.

So if you are expecting whopping decreases in your cable TV bills if this legislation passes, don't hold your breath. In fact, the ability of municipalities or the state to even regulate basic cable rates would be gone.

What's happening in Wisconsin isn't an isolated incident. Wholesale deregulation of the video services industry under the guise of fostering competition is being pushed in legislatures all across the country, backed by big money and conservative ideologues like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican whose right-wing "think-tank" has been pushing this legislation since before it had a bill number. Weeks before most members of the Wisconsin Legislature had even seen the bill, Armey's Freedom Works Foundation was trying to line up sponsors. Major contributors to Dick Armey's cause include AT&T, Verizon and Exxon-Mobile.

Sadly, the recent trend in video services and telecommunications has been toward increasing the concentration of ownership and control of the media, resulting in fewer consumer choices and less competition, not only in terms of price, but also in terms of ideas. The opinions expressed here are strictly my own, but it seems to me that in the arena where competition is most important to our democracy and our future, the competition of ideas, the net effect of these bills will be to decrease competition through the elimination of public access as a vehicle for information, dialogue and discussion of things that matter to our communities.

Charles Uphoff is chair of the Fitchburg Broadband Telecommunications Commission.

Published: April 26, 2007

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