WI: Rebuff cable legislation

Posted on March 18, 2007 - 6:34pm.

from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Rebuff cable legislation
Posted: March 18, 2007

What happens when a powerful utility like AT&T wants its way? It joins forces with competitors and uses lobbyists to change the rules of the game. That is what is happening to cable and video in the Legislature.

AT&T says it does not want to negotiate contracts through every local government. Yet the communities it wants to reach all are represented by the Regional Telecommunications Commission. The commission, which I chair, contacted AT&T and offered it one-stop shopping. AT&T representatives met with us but did not negotiate. It was their way only.

They threatened to get what they want from Madison. What they want is a green light to cream the market and rid themselves of such inconveniences as public access (known as PEG, or public, educational and governmental) and public safety.

The Montgomery-Plale cable video bill does just that.

Like your local public access and government channels? Think educational channels are good for your schools? Well, kiss PEG goodbye. The bill requires 12 hours of non-repeated local programming (even local TV can't do that) and forbids the funding to run educational and government channels.

Want to subsidize AT&T's construction with your local taxes? The legislation forbids local governments to collect fees to check electrical installations or for repairs to streets that AT&T digs up or even to require safety measures from invasive equipment cabinets.

The legislation changes the formula on franchise fees so that items such as advertising are excluded. It is estimated this will reduce the fees that cable and video pay by 20% to 25%, resulting in fewer municipal services. If you think this translates to lower fees, think again.

When Time Warner got Milwaukee to reduce PEG payments, it raised rates the same year.

Neither local government nor the state is permitted to ask what a provider's finances or technical abilities are. The new provider need only fill out a form claiming it is OK.

But Touch America went bankrupt in 2004 after the state Department of Transportation gave it rights of way.

Another cable provider, Adelphia, was brought to bankruptcy in 2004 through mismanagement and corruption.

The RTC caught Adelphia before it became a problem here. When Adelphia refused to show the commission its books, we looked at public data and did not allow Adelphia into our area.

However, under this bill, anyone can use our rights of way with no real restrictions.

AT&T's PR folks started a campaign for "competition." Yet AT&T has side deals that restrict competition. It is not fair play, but that is how the company does business. The utility wants competition only if it benefits AT&T.

Subscribers equate lower prices with competition, but don't hold your breath. AT&T's price for cable-video service equals Time Warner's.

Do you use basic tier service that costs between $12 and $17 a month for 28 channels? Forget it. It'd be gone.

In fact, the AT&T chairman made clear he will compete on service, not price.

The RTC represents you. We are responsible for protecting your rights of way so that they are safe, properly used and then correctly put back so your local tax dollars don't pay for someone else's mess.

We also need to ensure that our rights of way do not get too crowded and that large cabinet eyesores are at least hidden from view.

Problems with cable or video? The state will likely handle it with glacial speed.

Tell your state senator and representative to vote "no" on this bill.

Bob Chernow is chairman of the Regional Telecommunications Commission.

( categories: AT&T | State Franchises | WISCONSIN )