Saturday, February 04, 2006

Good News From the Federal Front

No, no, not on the hurricanes; that would be too much to hope for. But there is good news on the arcane but vitally important question of video franchising.
Ranking Senate Commerce Committee member Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Co-Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) have released a "series of principles" they say are "essential" to any video-franchising reform legislation.

Now being happy over a “series of principles” promoted by two of Washington’s power brokers may seem like a pretty dubious emotion but in this case I think it is actually warranted.

These two men are announcing a set of principles that would affirm the rights of local communities to control their own property and use that property to pursue what they (and not the Feds) think would be best for the community free from Federal “guidance.” Here is the skeleton of the principles as reported by Broadcasting and Cable:

•Recognize and Reaffirm the Role of States and Localities in the Video Franchising Process.
Consistent with existing law, state or local franchise authorities should retain the authority to supervise rights-of-way use and recover the associated costs, to require the payment of a reasonable franchise fee, and to require sufficient outlets for local expression and appropriate institutional network obligations...
•Promote Competition by Facilitating Speedy Entry on Fair Terms.
...Nevertheless, the desire for a process facilitating swift entry should not result in a blank check for would-be competitors. Instead, franchising authorities must ensure that similar (though not necessarily identical) responsibilities attend to any would-be franchisee, so that consumers throughout the franchise area can enjoy the benefits of such services on a non-discriminatory basis...
•Promote Competitive Neutrality and a Level Playing Field.
The regulatory regime should be the same for providers of video services where the operator, and not the consumer, controls the video content offering. Definitional arbitrage on the basis of a particular technology should not be permitted.
The franchising process should be designed to promote fairness for consumers in local communities and to promote a level playing field for providers. If a competitive entrant negotiates better terms and conditions for a franchise, other providers in that community should be entitled to adopt those same terms and conditions.

That phrase “definitional arbitrage” is fine piece of language. What they mean is that the phone companies should not be able to get away with defining their for-pay video channels as an “information service” which, by federal definition, gets a ride free of local obligation while cable companies are providing their for-pay channels as a “communications service” meet such obligations. (Believe it or not our entire national telecommunications regulatory regime rotates around this wholly false distinction all areas, not just in video.)

Now the alert reader will notice in the influence of cable companies in the last paragraph above where the federales take it upon themselves to limit the rights of several hundred thousand local communities to make distinctions between cable and incumbent and any local upstarts that might want to join the competition. But I guess you can’t expect any better from our current bunch. The notion that the only fairness in the legislative world is fairness to huge corporations (and that local communities don’t need any of that stuff) is deeply ingrained.

You’d think that endorsing the set of principles enunciated above would be a no-brainer. You’d think no sane federal legislator would step into morass of trying strip every little community in their district of traditional tools to meet the needs of local people. You’d think that any federal senator or representative that was hoping to be re-elected would flee from the mere suggestion that they would and rush to support their local colleagues. (As Burns and Inouye are doing.)

You’d think wrong.

On issues where the desires of large corporations are at stake the distinctions between democrat and republican, or conservative, moderate, and liberal are meaningless. The real divisions in our “leadership” are between those that are wholly owned by their corporate masters and those that maintain a semblance of independent thought and some regard for the people who actually elected them. These days corporations pay for election campaigns and all too many legislators act as if their first allegiance is to those who “paid the freight.” This franchising issue is a test case. Want to know who’s wholly owned and who’s not? Watch this seemingly obscure issue for an indication. (It’s only and indication and not a litmus test because the cable companies, who’ve not worked the political game to any degree that resembles the phone companies have begun to wake up to the fact that their interests, in this moment, align with local communities.)

At any rate, this set of principles are only a good idea--nothing secure. All it means is that there will be a real and influential voice on the commerce committee and in Congress that will fight for the interests of real communities. It’s a lonely hopeful sign.


Anonymous said...

Is there anyway we can get LCG to adopt these same principles for Lafayette?

John said...


I think you are missing (most) of the point. With one exception all that these principles do is allow the cities and towns to keep on doing what they've always done. (In our local case LUS has always said it would echo the terms of Cox's video franchise.) So it is not necessary to ask LCG to “adopt these principles.” They already have them.

The Feds, at the request of companies like BellSouth and Cox, are threatening to remove important rights local communities have now.

The two Senators are calling for the Congress to have more principle than to change that; to adopt these principles as their own. --LCG doesn’t have to adopt them since it already “has” them.