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WI: Do the right cable reform

By saveaccess
Created 05/10/2007 - 9:40pm

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Editorial: Do the right cable reform

An editorial
May 9, 2007

The state Senate's decision to slow down deliberations on a proposal to put state government in the business of licensing cable television systems is appropriate and necessary.

The bill in its current form is not a product of the Legislature and its members.

Rather, it is an industry-crafted measure that communications giant AT&T is desperate to get passed.

AT&T was spreading so much campaign money around earlier this year, hiring so many lobbyists and filling the radio airwaves with so many slick commercials favoring its bill, that for a time it seemed that this radical restructuring of how cable systems operate in Wisconsin was unstoppable.

But now it may be stopped. Senators have taken the bill off the fast track and steered it into the committee process.

Hopefully, that reconsideration will lead to a decision to scrap the measure altogether.

Killing this bill does not have to spell the end of efforts to reform cable regulations in Wisconsin.

There is no question that cable rates are too high in most communities, that services are too limited, that consumer-friendly flexibility is too rare and that communications conglomerates rather than citizens and their local cable boards call too many of the shots.

But it is comic to suggest that "monopolistic enterprises are in favor of competition," to borrow a phrase from League of Wisconsin Municipalities director Dan Thompson. And it is even more comic to suggest that these powerful and profit-driven corporations would have the slighted inclination to write legislation designed to do anything except increase their power and profits.

Real regulatory reform doesn't come from the corporations that are supposed to be regulated. It comes from citizens and their representatives, working with independent experts who understand how changes in technology and in the regulatory climate make it possible to do better for the state.

Legislators should set the agenda in the Legislature. They can do that by establishing a special committee or task force charged with examining current regulations in order to determine what changes would be best for consumers and communities.

Those deliberations should, as well, recognize the essential role that media play in our civic and democratic life. A great deal of attention should be paid to questions of how best to strengthen municipal and community access stations.

There should also be consideration of how best to come up with an ethical and functional system for funding statewide C-SPAN-style programming. C-SPAN is supported by money derived from the nation's cable systems. Perhaps there is a way to come up with a plan to do the same in Wisconsin Eye, which is just getting going.

The bottom line is this: Cable regulations can and should be reformed in Wisconsin. New approaches are needed. Better service with more flexibility and lower costs is possible. And our essential communications systems can be restructured so that they are more supportive of democracy and civic life. But that will only happen if legislators, acting on behalf of their constituents, take control of the process away from the corporations.

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