Monday, December 06, 2004

Vindicating Bristol

A report from a State Corporation Commission hearing examiner cleared Bristol Virginia Utilities of allegations it subsidizes its telephone service with income from its other operations according to an article in the hometown newspaper.

Cross-subsidization of municipal telecom services (and only municipal's—the phone and cable companies are free to use money from any source in pricing their competitive offerings) is forbidden by state law in Virginia—as it is here in Lafayette.

Readers may recall Bristol. The city has been so often cited as an example of the failure of municipal fiber-optics, when it is actually one of the movement's signal success stories, that it makes for an excellent case study in just how incumbent disinformation and delaying tactics work—As Mike demonstrated in his Fact Check piece: Blowing the Whistle Over Bristol. As is mentioned in the "Blowing the Whistle" article, cross-subsidization has long been a charge leveled against Bristol based mostly on a story (one should not call it a study) by the Progress and Freedom's man Thomas Lenard who repeated similar charges during the "Academic" Broadband charade staged here by Cox and BellSouth.

A similar attempt to disrupt the functioning of the Bristol Virgina Utilities (BVU) by litigating its right to offer video services also ultimately failed—but not before it deprived the local utility of a year of income from its most lucrative service and $625,000 in legal fees. (A fact which the learned Lenard's strained analysis failed to take into account.) The same issue emerged in the cross-subsidization dispute:
Jim Bowie, attorney for the utility’s board, said it was unfortunate that it took two years and thousands of dollars to reach this point.

"We didn’t have any choice," he said. "We had to spend that money, and it was money that was down the drain. We’re just tickled to death that we were proved right."
Bristol had to get a state law forbidding publicly owned utilities from offering telecom services repealed just to begin offering its services; they've more than adequately proved their moxie. Faced with this sort of litigation local politicians and state municipal organizations should begin to plan the repeal of any and all laws that the telecoms can use as a bludgeon to force unfair expenses on local governments that only want to serve their citizens. A bill that combined repeal of the cross-subsidization law and with the repeal of a couple of million in one the state's tax breaks for the companies involved should send an adequate message; even if it didn't pass the first time. This sort of abuse of the legal system shouldn't be "cheap" for the perpetrators.

Preparing a first draft of a such a piece of legislation and quietly releasing it to local state legislators and the Louisiana Municipal Association for comment might have salutary effects here. It's always worthwhile to have an arrow waiting in your quiver.

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