MA: Verizon officials catch static over cable TV plan

Posted on June 6, 2007 - 6:00am.

from: Boston Globe

Verizon officials catch static over cable TV plan

By Carolyn Y. Johnson, Globe Staff
June 6, 2007

At a packed Beacon Hill hearing yesterday, top officials from Verizon Communications Inc. faced skeptical questions about a telecommunications bill yesterday from a legislative committee and a crowd that hissed and heckled at times.

"If you want to get shot, come on down with Senator Panagiotakos," joked Democratic state Senator Michael Morrissey of Quincy, who cochairs the Joint Committee on Utilities, Telecommunications, and Energy, referring to the Democratic cosponsor of the bill that would shift control of cable franchising from local to state officials.

Amid a high turnout from the opposition and questions about a top Verizon official's recent statement to investors that the current town-by-town franchising system wasn't a problem, the company put its case for the bill in stark terms.

Donna Cupelo , Verizon's president for Massachusetts and Rhode Island, said the company invested $600 million in the state in 2006, but is only spending $500 million this year. Some of the difference, she said, has gone to states that have already passed similar cable franchising legislation.

The company is constantly reevaluating how to allocate its $23 billion investment in a fiber-optic, or FiOS, network capable of delivering high-speed Internet and video. "Having a more predictable process makes it more likely we'll be able to make a stronger case for Massachusetts," said Joe Zukowski , vice president of government relations for Verizon.

The bill's opposition -- a combination of municipal advocates and cable companies -- showed up en masse, with local cable committee members, municipal advocates, selectmen, and mayors sporting neon stickers with slogans like "Keep cable local!" and "Don't mess with access."

"In spite of all its claims, Verizon simply has no intention of serving many Massachusetts cities and towns in the foreseeable future," said Joseph Curtatone , mayor of Somerville, adding that he and 49 other municipalities sent a letter to Verizon chief executive Ivan Seidenberg this week, inviting the company into their communities.

Over and over, local officials appeared before the committee noting the current franchise process was working fine, with 49 Verizon cable franchises in place and 19 more pending. Critics voiced concerns that public, educational, and governmental access programming would suffer, that Verizon would be able to "cherry pick" wealthy neighborhoods in which to offer the service, and local governments would lose control of their rights of way under the proposed legislation.

There was hissing after Zukowski spoke about the legislation, and booing when a municipal official from Bourne voiced support for the bill.

While opponents say it is insufficient, the bill does include a provision for public access channels, a prohibition against discrimination in offering service, and lays out the rules for access to municipal rights of way.

Democratic state representative Brian Dempsey of Haverhill, who cochairs the committee, said after hearing the testimony that he thought both sides had made good points.

"Certainly, I'm concerned about the local communities, but we're hearing there are many communities that do have more than one provider" already, Dempsey said. "But how do we continue to attract investment in the infrastructure, which I think is a very big part of this."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at