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MA: Verizon wants to even cable playing field

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Created 03/05/2007 - 8:26am

from: Metro West Daily News [1]

Verizon wants to even cable playing field

By Andrew J. Manuse/Daily News staff
Sunday, March 04, 2007 - Updated: 11:01 PM EST

In its latest effort to convince state lawmakers to make cable licensing a state-level job, Verizon Communications Inc. said its main competitor is unfairly benefiting from the current local-level process.

The New York-based communications firm is going from community to community to request cable TV franchises from local cable advisory boards so it can sell its FiOS TV service in each town. The process takes anywhere from 15 to 24 months, according to Joe Zukowski, vice president of government affairs for Verizon, who presented the company's case in an editorial board meeting with Daily News editors last week.

The firm is asking state lawmakers to pass a bill sponsored by Rep. James Vallee, D-Franklin, and Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, that would give authority to the state Department of Telecommunications and Energy to grant licenses to entire regions within a 15-day period.

The bill requires any new cable TV entrant to pay the same fees to cities and towns that current law allows, and local officials would still have control over how the money, ultimately paid by consumers, is spent.

In the meantime, incumbent provider Comcast Corp., of Philadelphia, is offering yearlong specials to customers in the towns where Verizon is seeking franchises before Verizon has the chance to sell FiOS TV there, Zukowski contended.

"Their advantage is their monopoly," he said. "This process is great for them. This is early warning. We apply for a video franchise and they know we're coming there. They're out there locking-in customers."

Verizon, which has traditionally sold telephone service to customers, and later Internet, is now getting into TV as cable TV and Internet providers tout their recently added telephone service delivered over their cable lines.

Verizon does not mind the competition in the phone business, according to Donna Cupelo, regional president for Verizon in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But it is unfair that Comcast and other cable providers didn't have to go community-by-community to sell telephone service a few years back when they entered the market, she said.

"Cable added voice in 30 days statewide, but we have to go town-by-town, city-by-city to add video to a network that can already handle it," she said.

The association representing Comcast, which also came in for an editorial board meeting at the Daily News, contended the law Verizon is pushing would give Verizon an unfair advantage for the length of its current contracts.

Comcast is locked into contracts with the communities it services for 10 years in some cases. The company would not have the opportunity to take advantage of the bill, if passed, until those contracts expire, said Paul Cianelli, president of the Braintree-based New England Cable and Telecommunications Association Inc.

Asked whether he would support different legislation on Beacon Hill, Cianelli said the current system is "consistent, it works and it has stood the test of time."

"The assumption here is that (the franchising process) is not streamlined, and I don't know why that is," said Cianelli, whose association represents other cable TV providers besides Comcast in New England, but not Verizon or RCN Corp. "Really, the question is, do you want the communities involved, or don't you?"

If Verizon walked into any community and signed the same license agreement as Comcast, it would be approved the same day, said Cianelli.

But Zukowski said some towns have asked Verizon for unreasonable improvements unrelated to cable TV, such as street lights, wrought iron fences and even cell phones for town employees.

To date, Verizon has secured cable licenses in 42 Massachusetts communities, including Franklin, Hopkinton, Marlborough, Natick, Newton, Sudbury and Wellesley. Holliston, Maynard, Northborough, Wayland and Framingham are among the 25 remaining communities where Verizon is applying for a license.

State Sen. Stepehn LeDuc, D-Marlborough, is a member of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, which will get a first look at the bill this year.

"It's our duty as legislators to evaluate if it's a fair package," LeDuc said in an interview. "It's all up to negotiation and amendment."

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