Friday, August 22, 2008

"Officials say new cable law not consumer friendly"

No s**t Sherlock Dept.

The Alexandria Town Talk today ran an article on local challenges to the recently passed "Consumer Choice for Television Act." Sadly misnamed, the new law was written by the telecom companies and promoted by the same bevy of folks in the legislature who gave us the Local (Un)Fair Competition Act that was aimed at Lafayette's fiber-optic network. That should tell you all you need to know.

But since we all want more, eager folks that we are, here are the gory details:
On Aug. 15, a new state law switched your local government's authority to negotiate cable franchises to the state.
More accurately, the law voided local control of locally owned rights-of-way and transferred the ability of local communities to do what they think best with their own property to the state. And not only that, but:
instead of negotiations, cable companies now will have almost automatic access to a new market simply by filing an affidavit with the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office.

Because the Secretary of State's Office will have only a ministerial function, there is no regulation such as that performed by the Louisiana Public Service Commission on utilities, city officials said.

What that means is that NOBODY, not even the secretary of state in which your local property rights are parked, has any real ability to exert control over a local monopoly like SuddenLink in Alex or Cox here in Lafayette. The effect is to hand local resources over to private corporations for . . . well, for nothing.

Except, of course, the promise of competition.

Which is not forthcoming. You've not seen a single mention of any new competition being encouraged by the new law. And if North Carolina's prototype law is any evidence (1,2, and especially 3) you're not going to, either. Two years after their law was passed, there is next to no new real competition and exactly zero such new competition from the likes of AT&T (who pushed the legislation on the basis that they were so eager to get started offering competition that negotiating with all those little local communities was just a pain and a bother). On the other hand, North Carolina's cable companies have dumped their local franchise obligations by the hundreds and grabbed the state charter. Net result: no new competitors for the cable corporations and fewer local obligations or responsibilities for the monopoly cable guys.

The same story is unfolding here in Louisiana.

In Alexandria a lawsuit challenging the law is being filed by the city. The story behind that story is that SuddenLink (the cableco that grabbed Cox's smaller properties in Louisiana when Cox sold out most of its smaller, less capable systems) is not meeting its contractural obligations to the community:
. . . during the latest negotiations between the city and Suddenlink Communications, which the company ended when talk about the new law began, the city asked Suddenlink to deliver on its promise to set up a customer service office within the city where consumers could pay their bills.

Officials also said the new law leaves them wondering about the future of the Government Access Channel and whether or not the city eventually could stop receiving a franchise fee. Suddenlink's current agreement with the city ends on Sept. 14.

According to the story the Louisiana Municipal Association has already filed suit:

Alexandria not only plans to file a lawsuit but also will file friends-of-the-court briefs on other suits being filed by several entities against the law, including the Louisiana Municipal Association, Police Jury Association of Louisiana and Lafayette Consolidated Government, officials said. The LMA filed its lawsuit last week.

McCormick said her organization, which represents Suddenlink, Cox Communications, Charter Communications and other major players in the industry, will intervene as an interested party in any court challenges.

Local readers will note the inclusion of Lafayette. Good. As I understand it, Lafayette's claim differs a bit from that of the others. Alexandria, apparently, is suing on the basis that its right to govern its own affairs is granted by the '74 state constitution. Lafayette can also claim local governance rights from an earlier constitution that the current constitution grandfathers in . . . rights that are greater than those granted in the '74 version. (The law in question explicitly exempts those pre-1974 municipalities and so places like Baton Rouge and New Orleans retain their franchise rights.) Lafayette wants to establish that its city-parish merger didn't extinguish those rights. What we see are multiple fronts on this issue. The LMA and the Police Jury Association are, I presume, looking out for the rights of non-home rule municipalities (most of the little guys). Look for the Alexandria suit to carry the flag for post '74 home rule cities. Lafayette, as is common, will carve out its own path.

But the bottom line is that the communities appear to be mounting a major legal fight and are going to support each other's efforts. That can only be a good sign for the people of the state.

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