WI: Legislature Holds Public Hearing on AT$T's Video Bill

Posted on March 27, 2007 - 8:42pm.

from: Waxing America

Wisconsin Legislature Holds Public Hearing on AT&T's Video Bill
March 27, 2007

The Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Energy and Utilities and the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Commerce Utilities and Rail are holding a joint public hearing today (Tuesday) on AB/SB 207, the AT&T-backed, fast-tracked legislation that would create a new, almost entirely unregulated state-level franchise for video service and eliminate the current system of municipal cable franchises. We've bored you with the subject again and again and again.

The hearing is in Room 412 East at 10 am. That's where I'll be until the last high school-aged access producer testifies. I'll post my testimony later, after it's been capsulized for the hearing and distributed. I'm told we'll have about three minutes each, so I'll read key sentences from each paragraph of my 2-page statement.

In Saturday's Wisconsin State Journal, Mark Pitsch did a very good job outlining the problems with the bill:

Wisconsin residents would lose their rights to cable television repairs within 72 hours, credit for service interruptions and advance notice of rate increases, under a bill on the fast track in the state Legislature.

The proposal, designed to increase competition in an industry dominated by cable companies, is supported by the lobbying muscle of telecommunications giant AT&T.

It's part of AT&T's challenge to cable companies such as Charter Communications, which are licensed by local governments.

There is little agreement on whether the proposal would help consumers or hurt them.

Local governments worry the so-called "video franchise" bill would lower the payments they get from cable providers up to 30 percent, which they say would mean cutting city services or increasing property taxes to cover the losses, they say.

Opponents also say the bill would mean less money for low-budget public-access channels.

One part of the story leaped out at me:

Cities that negotiate licensing agreements with cable companies don't have a reason to negotiate lower rates because they get a portion of revenues, Montgomery said.

"What incentive has there been on the city's behalf to hold down rates? None. That's their cash cow," he said.

Surely Representative Montgomery, the prime sponsor of AB 207 and the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Energy and Utilities, knows that cities are prohibited by federal law from being able to "negotiate lower rates." If he doesn't know, he should, since one of the basic assumptions behind his thinking is wrong. If he does know, maybe he was misquoted; Rep. Montgomery wouldn't be distorting the facts to fit his arguments.

Aside from all the nonsense about consumers saving money, the most outrageous parts of the bill are:

1. The placement of regulation in the Dept. of Financial Institutions (DFI) with specific language that prohibits the DFI from enforcing or interpreting the law, or reviewing the qualifications of applicants, or reviewing new owners of franchises. Under AB/SB 207, the DFI could issue a statewide franchise, file it in a cabinet, and do almost nothing else. It's a particularly egregious case of legislative chutzpah (look it up) that would result in video services being not deregulated, but unregulated. Senior legislative staff have told me this level of handcuffing of a state agency has never been tried before.

2. Eliminating consumers' rights to get rebates if the service goes out, get 30 days notice if the rates go up or services get dropped, and get 10 days notice when they are disconnected for non- payment, and only after being 45 days late paying. That's all in State Statues 100.209 and the bill eliminates it all. Those subscriber rights were enacted in 1991 with support of the cable industry. If this passes, cable and phone/video customers would have no rights other than take providers to court and sue them.

- Barry Orton

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