TN: Deal is near on AT$T's statewide cable plans

Posted on April 13, 2008 - 6:37am.

from: The Tennessean

Deal is near on AT&T's statewide cable plans
Compromise bill is expected to be unveiled Monday
By THEO EMERY and NAOMI SNYDER • Staff Writers • April 5, 2008

Lawmakers expect to unveil compromise legislation on Monday that would permit AT&T to offer its television services statewide, capping months of closed-door talks between feuding sides of the telecommunications industry.

House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh brokered back-room negotiations over AT&T's efforts to bring its "U-verse" television service to Tennesseans statewide, rather than negotiating with individual cities and towns.

The legislation was the focus of a fierce legislative battle last year that ultimately broke down. After Naifeh ordered the two sides to work out a compromise, AT&T and cable company executives have been meeting weekly for more than three months on the issue.

On Friday, House Democrats announced that the bill would be unveiled at a news conference on Monday. That announcement followed comments from Commerce Committee Chairman Charlie Curtiss, a Sparta Democrat, who said the proposal was almost done.

"I think right now we're going to get this piece of legislation behind us," he told House members this week, adding, "We would never have finished this if the speaker hadn't intervened and caused people to start talking. I think the citizens of this state will benefit from this legislation."
Stumbling block remains

Afterward, Curtiss said that the parties would work through the weekend on a remaining stumbling block: the channels set aside for public access, education and government broadcast. When it's complete, the legislation will be amended onto an existing bill.

"They got a couple more issues that they almost have resolved," he said. "We think we'll have the amendment sometime around noon or shortly thereafter on Monday."

Curtiss said any issues that cannot be agreed upon will be legislated through the committee process, which will start immediately after the amended bill is released.

Across the country, AT&T has sought legislation that would allow the company to offer its services statewide, rather than franchising locally. Traditional cable companies, such as Comcast, have fought back, saying AT&T ought to play by established franchising rules. Cities and towns also have resisted AT&T's efforts because it would remove their ability to regulate channels locally. Consumer advocates also have objected, saying that statewide franchising can result in services' bypassing poor and rural communities.

Chad Jenkins, who represented the Tennessee Municipal League during the discussions, said there were still issues to be worked out before the news conference, although he wouldn't detail them.

The Tennessee Municipal League, which had been opposed to the legislation in prior sessions, agreed to negotiate under the assumption that AT&T would get a bill through the legislature this year after two previous failed attempts.

"You either stick your head in the sand and get run over, or you sit down at the table,'' he said.

Contact Theo Emery at 726-4889 or Naomi Snyder at 259-8284.

( categories: AT&T | Comcast | State Franchises | TENNESSEE )