Monday, May 22, 2006

"Opponents: BellSouth is seeking unfair deal"

The Advertiser carries another article on BellSouth's state-wided cable franchise bill. The event prompting the story is:

The battle goes behind closed doors today, when warring sides will meet privately with Sen. Ken Hollis, R-Metairie, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, who has invited the four major groups involved in the fight to a meeting to see if there is any common ground.

The telephone companies are on one side; joining the cable industry in opposition are the Louisiana Municipal Association and the Louisiana Police Jury Association.

The local government group and BellSouth/AT&T tried meeting before the hearing in the House Committee as well. It didn't go well. BellSouth/AT&T was willing to compromise on a lot of issues that were not central and unwilling to compromise on things that were. The bill reported out of the House Committee was an odd creature: a bill that was extensively amended, ostensibly to please local government, that was implacably opposed by local government. The story gets the basis for local opposition at least partly right:
The police juries and cities have different reasons from cable operators for opposing the telephone companies. Local governments have two major issues: They want a requirement that the telephone companies would have to build out to every possible customer within their jurisdictions, and they do not want to lose control over the rights of way as they would under the legislation.
Those are the two related issues that were emphasized at the House hearings. But the Louisiana Municipal Association has also promoted two other reasons to oppose the law to its membership in a recent action alert. A third reasons to oppose the bill is that it is unnecessary--nothing stands in the way of BellSouth or any company getting a franchise now and providing competitive services. But the fourth reason is still not being talked about much publicly: BellSouth and it's purchaser AT&T who will actually be the corporation to benefit from this law has put itself in the position to pay NO franchise fees. People are uncomfortable talking about it because to bring it up is to all but accuse BellSouth of lying and its allies in the legislature of being dupes.

Southern delicacy aside, for the people of this state, this is will be the big issue downstream. The gist of this matter--and the line of questioning that reporters and legislators should pursue--is whether AT&T/BellSouth:

1) Believes that its IPTV service (Project Lightspeed) is an information service? AT&T has repeatedly made the claim that it is.

2) Ask if it is true that the Federal government, in the guise of the FCC has forbidden any regulation of information services and forbidden local governments from, in any way--including franchise fees or buildout requirements--from having any influence over information services. (If they try and give you any guff on this ask if AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre didn't claim as recently as two weeks ago in Detroit that IPTV was not subject to franchise rules because it wasn't "cable TV.")

3) Has AT&T/BellSouth ever paid a franchise fee anywhere based on it having served its IPTV cable TV "information service" to any community?

4) Whether the answer is no (as I believe it is) or yes:What obligates AT&T to pay Louisiana franchise fees given that the current bill explicitly exempts income from information services from franchise fees? Is there any legal mechanism by which BellSouth could be compelled to pay its franchise fees if its own definition of its IPTV services holds up in court? (At this point there will be fluff about a term in the bill called "video services" that is supposed to cover IPTV. Pay no attention. Stay focused on "information services," federal regulations, the FCC's exclusionary rules and the letter of the proposed law.)

5) For good measure ask: "Has AT&T ever, in any locale, no matter how densely populated or potentially profitable, ever been willing to compromise on its position that it is unwilling to offer its new cable-like services to the whole community in order to use the community's property? When you get the answer "NO" --or more likely some mealy-mouthed hedge--ask: "Is avoiding build-out requirements the real point of this law? --Is AT&T/BellSouth willing to say anything in regard to fees, or other non-buildout franchise issues (since it has no plan to comply with them) in order to secure a state-wide exemption from the legal consequences of local property rights?" (Ok, number 5 is a rhetorical question. Ask it anyway. Sometimes we learn from the way people evade answering questions.)

John Hill appears to be the only reporter in the state that is covering BellSouth's state-wide cable franchise bill. That's extremely unfortunate. It ought to be a huge story and, even in this post-Hurricane milieu, we ought to be having a vigorous public debate. This is one of those issues for which reporters exist: they ought to be educating the public. If I am correct, and I really think I am, the consequenes of passing this law will be enormous in every town and city in the state when AT&T decides it is not obligated to pay local governments a penny. (At 3%--2% below the more common 5% maximum--cable franchise fees are a quarter of Lafayette's budget. New Orleans gets 5 million dollars.) Any reporter that is on top of it will have a career-making set of stories to write.

As citizens we all have an obligation to contact our Senators and drive home the risk they will be taking if they approve this law. Call, write, and complain. Let you Senator know that a vote against Ellington's bill, SB 386 is what you expect. Contact your Senator (find your Senator)


GumboFilé said...

What else is politics truly used for if not propogating unfair deals?

David in Grand Coteau

John said...

Master Hays,

Politics is truly best used for promoting the good for our community--it is our best tool, and our only commmunity-wide one for that purpose.

Promoting unfair deals is a perversion of that honest and valuable purpose.

GumboFilé said...

If only.

John said...

To honestly believe otherwise (as opposed to the cynical pose that so many people fashionably put on) is to give up on democracy and self-governance.

Government, and especially local government, is our only effective defense against against the greed and self-interested selfishness that would otherwise rule human relations.

No other institution, throughout history, has even come close.

Perfect it is not, but necessary it is.

GumboFilé said...

Liberty, the anti-institution. It works when allowed to.

John said...

Methinks you mistake the relationship between liberty and institutions. Liberty is not in opposition to government. In truth, properly understood, government exists in fair part to secure liberty. The founders understood the relationship better:

"that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,"

Governments exist to secure our liberty it is NOT Liberty's natural enemy.

The true enemy of freedom is the unconstrained greed, selfishness, and cruelty of our fellows.

That is part of what appears so perverse to me about the current fashion to identify the ever-expanding greed of corporations wit "freedom," and "Liberty." That way of thinking actually exalts taking away safeguards that enhance the freedom of real, human people and condemns those safeguards as "regulation."

The case at hand in the post above is a good example. BellSouth greedily desires the ability to serve only some of the people whose property it wants to use in order to enter into a new and profitable business. Going to the state to step on local, collectively held property rights to avoid the consequence of having to serve all the owners of property you want to "take" does not expand the realm of freedom for real people.

I've opined before that that there is a huge difference between real conservatives and corporate ones. BellSouth is using conservative rhetoric dishonestly to run roughshod over real, historically proven, American values.

The founders would find BellSouth's use of the concepts of freedom and liberty almost incomprehensibly perverse. Governments were instituted among men precisely to prevent such abuses of the weak by the strong.

That's a long-winded way to say that I too believe liberty is solution. But that I think I have a radically different understanding of what Liberty is and how men have always joined together to secure it.

GumboFilé said...

The founders thought they could give a monopoly of power to a group of elected leaders and that group would be restricted by a written constitution. The founders were proven wrong within a generation. Each successive generation the problem and the proof increases logarithmically.


John said...

Ah, Mr. Hays, Therein lies the nugget of our true disagreement, You now know why I fight and why I fight against whom I fight.

I suspect the same could be said of your actions and inactions.

We, I fear, agree about the sad state of our republic. We disagree about whether a 230 year old dream is worth fighting for.

You are mistaken about Liberty, and are wrong that a monopoly on power was ever intended to be arrogated to the few, elected or not:

"The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

If we have not tended the fire the fault does not lie in our forefathers, the fault lies in us.

No dream is dead until those who dream it are dead.

Some of us soldier on.

John said...

But we've strayed far from the post that spawned this conversation.

Would the state-wide franchise bill be a taking of property? And if not, why not?

Is BellSouth, acting as agent for its purchaser AT&T, angling for a law that will damage communities in order to enrich itself?

Should citizens try to influence this bill's passage? If so, in what direction. If no, why not?

I'm concerned that we not loose track of the real, immediate issues at hand as we pursue our enlightening but abstract discussion.