Monday, June 11, 2007

No Cable Subscriber Left Behind

If Wisconsin's experience is anything like what is happening in other states, the so-called Video Competition Act being pushed by AT&T and put on a fast track to passage by eager-to-please state lawmakers will end up deserving a place right next to No Child Left Behind and the federal Clear Skies and Healthy Forests initiatives in the Doublespeak Hall of Fame.

Legislative sponsors, AT&T's lobbyists and its PR machine all are chirping about how the legislation will lower cable TV rates in Wisconsin. Sounds a lot like the hype for No Child Left Behind before it became evident how many children are being left behind. For starters, only one in five students eligible for the tutoring the law promised are getting it.

As sure as Clear Skies allowed more air pollution and Healthy Forests gave timber companies the green light to more aggressively harvest trees on public lands, it's a safe bet that cable bills will go up under the Video Competition Act. Just look at Texas, where legislation virtually identical to AT&T's bill in Wisconsin has done the opposite of what was promised.

George Orwell's got to be doing double axels and triple toe loops in his grave.


Anonymous said...

at&t * Internet * home phone * wireless * digital TV * wiretapping

Display Name said...

There's a new PSA about this on YouTube.

We're all in favor of competition, right? But there's little obstacle to competition. AT&T and its sock puppets repeated the notion that existing cable franchises were somehow a monopoly. That hasn't been true since the mid-80s. This bill does nothing to enrich the possibilities for competition for video services.

The reality is, for more than thirty years, there has been no significant obstacle for any video competitor to enter any of the more than 300 Wisconsin cities with an existing cable franchise. As per decades of FCC rulings, existing franchise agreements are non-exclusive, meaning any video provider has been free to enter these cities to offer competition. It's not a hard process, especially for any huge telecom company. Franchise agreements are 99% similar from city to city. They often last a decade or more. Cities are required to offer the same terms to all comers. So have video providers chosen to compete with each other? No. You can't snap your fingers and change the laws of economics or the reality of our markets.

Yesterday's video providers didn't like the prospect of sharing a market with a competitor. On average you'll have about 75% of the households subscribing to an incumbent video service - probably coaxial cable-based. So how can this bill change that reality? It can't. This bill eliminates local control and past requirements for build-out and offering a service to the entire community, meaning a new video provider is free to cherry-pick the richest neighborhoods where customers will pay more than $120 a month for a bundle of video, phone and Internet. In fact, that's what AT&T has said it intends to do. This bill won't make rural Wisconsin cities any more potentially profitable than they were yesterday.

This bill removes local control over the public right-of-way, too. If three video providers wanted to put fridge-sized boxes on the grass between your front lawn and the street, neither you, City Hall or Madison could do anything about it. Local franchising authority gives cities that local control over who's digging where, who's responsible when the sewer main is broken, and where they can place their equipment on the right-of-way. But this bill dispenses with all that unpleasant local control.

This bill also guts the mechanisms that've created hundreds of public access channels. These channels are run on a shoestring, bringing you local coverage that the big networks don't touch. City council meetings, county board meetings, high school football games and plays - everything that's special about your home town. The bill has a half-dozen loopholes to give new video providers reasons to never carry these channels. There's no value in an informed electorate?

Want another Orwellian twist? I know this might sound a little far-out, but my end-game bet is that AT&T will have exempted itself from these state-level agreements within a year or so. They'll claim they're exempt because of the loophole in Wisconsin's bill that exempts providers who deliver via Internet protocol. Where the present law seems out-dated because it's coaxial-based and uses the word "cable," the new bill carves out an exemption for AT&T's U-Verse. Or maybe Wisconsin's law will be superceded by a national franchise system.

pvl said...

Excellent post, John Foust. I've been looking for a clear laundry list of the various short-comings and outrages of the bill (minus legal mumbo-jumbo). Very helpful.

There has GOT to be a way to put pressure on those state reps that seem to want to let this pig fly ... anyone have a list of people that look to be "solid" vs "soft" in support of the thing? We should launch a letter writing and phone bank campaign.

Also, I would chip in (my meager sum) to try to buy some media time ... even 30 sec could be effective, if it had some creative hutzpah ...