Federal cable franchise? Bad idea

Marketplace Staff Jun 22, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: So much legislation, so little time. Congress has a lot to do before its summer break. And today a Senate Committee took up telecommunications. A bill that would make it easier for telephone companies to enter the cable TV market. Those phone companies would be able to get a federal cable franchise. Not have to worry about what local governments think, the way the law is now. But commentator and consumer advocate Jamie Court says any change is a bad idea.

JAMIE COURT: Should consumers and their local governments relinquish complete control over companies in exchange for high-speed video and Internet service?

The argument is consumers need choices and no one likes big, bad cable companies that gouge consumers with their monopolies or the cable guy that keeps you waiting all day.

But it’s an outrageous power grab to let telephone giants and cable companies out of obligations to negotiate with over 30,000 local licensing authorities before laying down pipelines in their communities.

You see, the local franchise is all about local leverage and control.

Just try complaining to the FCC and not city hall when AT&T’s new high-speed service utility box blocks the view from your living room.

The local franchise is about things like community control over digging up city streets, over equal access for better services, and over televising city hall meetings.

Cities and towns demand big benefits and set base rates for consumers in exchange for local cable and telephone franchises.

In exchange for those franchises, local governments can require public access channels and programming. Local governments can also push companies to offer schools, libraries and government free video and Internet service. Right now, they’re pushing for community wi-fi.

Public hearings, comments by community members, and votes by local elected officials are what it takes to win a local franchise.

If a company goes back on its word, there’s not only an enforceable contract but hell to pay for political leaders that don’t force the company to make good.

The new federal franchise is basically an application form without any strings. For example, cities require new services to be built in poor communities, but the federal licence will let companies ignore building in low-income areas altogether.

The telecom giants tell us the greater good here is more choices. With local accountability gone, though, the AT&Ts, Verizons and Comcasts will be the only ones with the power to choose.

RYSSDAL:Jamie Court is the President of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

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