Monday, May 01, 2006

Alert: Franchise Bill Advances (Updated (twice))

Update2: The calendar has apparently changed again. I'm now told the franchise bill won't make a committee hearing until the 6th. You can tune in at the hearing's video page a few minutes before the action starts or navigate to the proper place from the legislative front page. This debate should be more interesting than the discussion over charges for setting graveyard tombstones that occupied much of Monday morning.

Update:
The state-wide franchise bill was not considered today, Monday, May 1st. It has been carried over to Tuesday May 2nd in a hearings session that begins at 9:00.

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With the Lafayette-BellSouth/ATT/Cox conflict suspended by the recent compromise bills in the Louisiana Legisalture that have been held up are likely to start moving. The first is a statewide video franchise. It is going to be heard in the House Commerce Committee on Monday.

This is one that Lafayette and the state's municipalities seem to understand is a terrible bill for the people of Louisiana so the hearing should be at least entertaining. It is our state's version of state and federal legislation that is being pushed with a vigor that only the phone companies are able to muster.

The Bell phone companies are pushing hard to overturn the current practice of granting local franchises for cable service in exchange for allowing the corporations to use publicly-owned right of ways. Such franchises yield substantial income for local governments, provide for local educational and Public Access channels like AOC, and often include services for local government. They also provide consumer protection, detailing quality standards and, most cogently for understanding the current push to eradicate them: include clauses that effectively force the cable corporations to provide access to service to all the citizens of the community. Franchises are the way that cable TV has been handled for years and are provided for in federal legislation.

The Bells have been telling legislators and the FCC that they're coming asking for relief because, first, that it is a burden to have to go around and have to ask all those little people for franchises. Secondly, they claim that local governments have drug their heels and asked for inane things. The truth seems to be that the Bells have barely tried. Their buildouts necessarily stretch out over years but they only come asking for a franchise when the have already built the capacity to offer TV. That's not usually considered prudent business practice. Regular businesses make sure that they can legally offer a service before they start to spend huge amounts of money investing in capacity. Only businesses that think they can get the rules changed to suit them act as if the normal rules don't apply to them.

It's pretty easy to see that local government's inappropriate behavior isn't the problem. The Louisiana Municipal Association and the Louisiana Police Juries apparently suggested that if speeding up the franchise process was a real problem they'd be happy to back an amended bill that would guarantee that the process could be made complete in 90 days if they'd leave control of local resources in local hands and be willing to adopt the terms and conditions of the existing cable franchise in the area they wished to begin offering service.

I don't expect that BellSouth will take 'em up on that.

What the phone companies have fought for, at the state or federal level, is not speed--that's an easy excuse--but for the elimination of "buildout" requirements. The real point is to allow the phone companies to only serve the most profitable few.

Beyond that after looking at the bill it seems to me that there are a couple of odd clauses that, taken together, will allow ATT/BellSouth to both take advantage of the portion of the proposed law that prohibits local governments from requiring that the whole community be served and to escape paying any franchise fees even to the state.

In a nutshell: one part of the law establishes that "certificate holders" cannot be required to serve the whole community. Another part of the law establishes the principle that "cable systems" can be required to pay franchise fees according to its gross receipts. A third spot in the law sets up conditions that allow a "traditional" telecom operator who delivers video via an "alternate" technology to become a "certificate holder" without being considered a "cable system" (recall, cable systems owe money). All you really need to know to connect the dots is that ATT has been insisting all over the country that its technology, IPTV, is not a cable system and is not therefore subject to laws regulating cable systems.

Put it all together and you get a free ride for the phone company: all the advantages of using local community property without having to serve the whole community and no responsibility to return any fees for the use of that property.

It's a terrible bill crafted to shaft local communities for the benefit of a handful of multinational corporations. Let your legislators know that you'd like to see them oppose it.

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