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WI: Cable TV bill has two sides

By saveaccess
Created 05/03/2007 - 7:30am

from: Hudson Star Observer [1]

Cable TV bill has two sides

Editorial staff, Hudson Star-Observer
Published Thursday, May 03, 2007

Cable television has been brought into the spotlight recently with a state bill that appears to be designed to lower cable TV rates. Local officials across the state, however, are concerned that the new bill could take away most local control of cable franchises. The new bill also may jeopardize local cable access stations, and that has city officials worried.

State Rep. Kitty Rhoades listened to a group of area government officials last week. The message she heard from local officials was “fix this thing.”

Judy Kelly, chairperson of the Hudson cable access board, presented Rhoades with a list of services and funding sources that she said the Hudson/North Hudson cable access TV station would lose if the cable bill becomes law.

Currently, local governments negotiate franchise agreements with cable providers. The agreements allow companies to use street rights-of-way for their cables and equipment in return for payments and services provided to the communities.

The measure known as the Video Competition Act would allow companies to obtain a statewide franchise, eliminating the need to negotiate with each community.

Kelly said the bill, in its current form, after three years would eliminate a monthly 75-cent PEG (public, education, government access) fee charged to customers that is used to buy and maintain equipment for community access stations.

The proposal in the state Legislature was presented as a competition-enhancing measure strongly backed by AT&T. The company 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.

If approved, the bill would essentially shift cable franchise control from local to state government. The new bill would make it easier for new cable and video providers to enter the Wisconsin marketplace — thus the competitive part of the theory.

Supporters of the bill claim it will reverse a trend that has seen cable rates nearly double while cell phone and long distance rates have plummeted. The new bill would offer customers other options if they didn’t like a service or price.

Opponents, however, claim any competition-related rate decreases would only be temporary. Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, said companies financing the bill have misrepresented what is really just a deregulation measure.

We believe in the concept of competition, but the bill needs some work before it should be seriously considered. Among other things, local municipalities should have some assurance that cable access programming will be funded and continue. Local government agencies should not be penalized — either in service or financially — to make things more convenient for service providers.

Rhoades said work on the bill was continuing.

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