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MA: Franchise Bill to be Introduced

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Created 01/10/2007 - 11:43pm

from: Boston Globe

Legislators look to increase cable TV competition Bill to speed approval process, aid Verizon

By Robert Weisman, Globe Staff | January 10, 2007

A pair of Massachusetts lawmakers is expected to introduce legislation today that would enable companies seeking to offer cable television to get approval from the state rather than cities and towns.

The bill being prepared by state Senator Steven Panagiotakos , Democrat of Lowell, and Representative James Vallee , Democrat of Franklin, would allow new cable-television providers such as Verizon Communications Inc. to bypass the current franchising process in individual communities and apply to the state Department of Telecommunications and Energy for permission to enter the cable market in one or more service areas.

Under the bill, the department's cable division would have 15 days to review and act upon such applications . The service areas could cover a municipality or several neighborhoods , or a group of contiguous cities and towns .

Verizon is building a fiber-optic network in 16 states, including Massachusetts, where it is planning to compete for cable-television customers with Comcast Corp. and other cable providers. During the past two years, Verizon has won franchising rights in 38 cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts, including Woburn, Lynn, Newton, Natick, and Marlborough, and has begun to offer television service in 35 of them.

But the company, which has more than 4 million phone and Internet customers in the state, said it has taken an average of 15 months to win approval for each municipal cable franchise. Switching authority to the state would speed the process and promote competition and consumer choice, the bill's advocates said.

"You're not going to get competition unless you streamline the process," said Panagiotakos. "Companies aren't going to spend money on infrastructure if they won't see a return for two or three years."

Geoff Beckwith , executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said his group will oppose the legislation. He called it an effort by Verizon to disenfranchise cities and towns.

"Clearly the intent is not to protect municipal rights," Beckwith said. "The intent is to circumvent cities and towns, which for decades have been the leading advocates for competition and for offering affordable and widespread cable television services for their citizens."

Though the bill would let municipalities negotiate with cable providers on providing funds to support local programming, as they currently do, Beckwith said it would effectively remove their leverage.

Panagiotakos acknowledged Verizon is a "main mover" behind the legislation, but said he and Vallee are motivated by a desire to offer more consumer choice. Verizon, based in Basking Ridge, N.J., has been lobbying state legislatures across the nation to adopt similar state-approval laws for cable television. Thus far, nine states have, including Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, and most recently, New Jersey. Panagiotakos said Verizon and other cable providers could build networks elsewhere if Massachusetts doesn't follow suit.

Marc Goodman , a spokesman for Comcast Corp., the state's largest cable-television provider, declined to comment on the legislation.

But the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association, a trade group that includes Comcast, issued a statement saying "Verizon's special-interest legislation is both unnecessary and inconsistent with the principal of local control." The statement noted that the Federal Communications Commission recently issued a ruling that dramatically accelerates the cable franchising approval process.

The town-by-town process has proved "problematic" for Verizon, however, said Joseph Zukowski , the company's vice president of government relations for Massachusetts. "We can't afford to fall behind these other states in creating a set of rules that encourage broadband deployment and create competition," he said. "Consumers are more concerned about their wallet and having choice than they are about who issues the permit."

Robert Weisman can be reached at

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