The AT&T lobbyist sponsored bill HB1421/ SB1933 in the Tennessee General Assembly eliminates local control of cable franchises, regulates local franchise fees, restricts or eliminates customer service and quality standards, provides state regulation of local public right of way for the benefit of cable companies, restricts or eliminates local build-out requirements, and allows cable companies to create statewide franchises.
The House version has been deferred three times, and is currently on the House Commerce Committee calendar for April 10th. The Senate version has been deferred once, and is currently on the Senate Commerce, Labor & Agriculture committee calendar for April 10th.
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This bill is bad for consumers and does not promote build-out of rural broadband. State Sen. Tommy Kilby (D-Wartburg) says in a recent Knoxville News Sentinel Perspectives column: "Thus, what AT&T is asking is that Tennessee give up the nondiscrimination rules critical to ensuring the future broadband enfranchisement of most residents in exchange for illusionary price cuts for cable services that even AT&T has acknowledged are little more than rhetorical in nature."
Further, state lawmakers aren't sure exactly what they are voting for. Regarding local revenues, the fiscal impact statement for the bill says: "Additional changes to local government revenues of unknown amounts. Any such changes could result from changes in property tax revenues and franchise fees. However, these changes are dependent upon multiple unknown factors and cannot be measured or reasonably quantified." One thing they do know, however, is that the fiscal impact statement projects a decrease of $12 million in state revenues.
When we contacted State Sen. Raymond Finney (R-Maryville) regarding our opposition to the bill, Sen. Finney responded by saying that he planned to vote against it.
This week, Knox County Commissioner Mark Harmon, Vice Chair of the Knox County Cable Committee, sponsored a resolution urging state lawmakers to oppose the statewide franchise bill. The resolution was approved unanimously by the committee, and says in part: "These two bills are the latest in a historical pattern of stripping away the legitimate exercise of county authority over easements and impeding the enforcement of franchise agreements regarding cable and video service providers." County Commission is expected to vote on the resolution at their next meeting.
In January of this year, Knoxville City Council Member Rob Frost sponsored a similar resolution that cites concerns about built-out requirements, quality and service standards, and the economic impact on local governments, urging state lawmakers to "carefully and closely scrutinize any proposed legislation which will adversely impact the authority of local governments to enter into franchise agreements with providers of cable television services and to refrain from adopting any such legislation which would have the effect of diminishing the local government's ability to afford service and coverage protections to its citizens or which would result in a significant loss of revenue to local government entities."
Earlier this month, the City of Alcoa passed a similar resolution, inviting AT&T to submit a proposal but opposing the statewide franchise bill. The City of Alcoa resolution says in part: "This legislation, under the guise of increased consumer access and choice, is simply an attempt by a corporate giant to bypass the local cable franchise process and unjustly gain advantages in its competitive fight with other cable and telephone companies that have duly and lawfully adhered to the franchise process." Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson noted that the bill would "allow AT&T and other companies the ability to 'cherry-pick' who they wanted to provide service to."
Johnson City Commissioners were scheduled to vote yesterday on a similar resolution. According to the Tri-Cities News, Commissioner Jane Myron said the legislation would allow AT&T "to pick and choose where it provides service, likely in the more affluent neighborhoods."
In their April 2007 edition of Tennessee Town and City, the Tennessee Municipal League has a series of articles voicing opposition to the bill. TML President Tommy Bragg has an extensive analysis of the bill and the inconsistencies regarding claims by its supporters, and concludes with this message to local governments: "I request that you follow the lead of the Congress, the prior actions of the Tennessee General Assembly, federal, state and local laws, and the FCC. Defeating this legislation will preserve local control of cable franchising, maintain build-out requirements, and allow you to protect consumers and local interests."
Another article notes that recent FCC regulations negate the need for the bill and address all cable company concerns regarding competition and local franchises. A third article notes that the proposed bill threatens Public, Education, and Government (PEG) cable access channels, saying: "The combined effect will be detrimental to community-access television and basically excuse statewide cable franchise holders from carrying virtually all PEG channels in the state."
In their January-February 2007 edition of County News, the Tennessee County Services Association says that the bill would circumvent local government authority: "As AT&T/BellSouth attempt to ease into the cable business, the company is working to change the existing competitive process. The proposals would set up a single entity that would grant franchising rights, which include local highway rights-of-way usage provisions. The proposal prohibits build out provisions. It also causes problems with consumer protection, public information channels, emergency notification access opportunities, and services to schools and libraries. It also limits our abilities in verifying the accuracy of payments, and our ability to perform meaningful applicant due diligence. [..] Local government organizations, including the Tennessee County Services Association and the Tennessee Municipal League, are opposing the measure because it takes decision-making out of the hands of local officials."
Bloggers around the state are also weighing in with their opposition:
With bi-partisan opposition among state and local lawmakers, the Tennessee Municipal League, the Tennessee County Services Association, rural broadband supporters, informed citizens, taxpayers, and consumers, and even cable companies, who thinks this bill is a good idea?
Metro Pulse columnist Frank Cagle notes that it is good for AT&T and even better for their lobbyists, calling it the "full-employment-for-lobbyists" bill. It's difficult to determine how much AT&T is spending to advance the Tennessee bill, but overall they spent $27.1 million last year on lobbying, making them the biggest corporate lobbying spender for 2006. The company spent $23 million on lobbying and advertising to promote a similar bill in California last year. What is known is that AT&T and the former BellSouth have at least sixteen registered lobbyists in Tennessee working on their behalf.
A full vote in the Tennessee General assembly may very well become a "litmus test" of who is on the side of consumers and local governments v. who is on the side of big corporations and their lobbyists. We urge you to contact your state representative and senator to let them know your views on this legislation.
Ed. note: Permission is granted to freely distribute, reprint or republish this article in full with credit to R. Neal, KnoxViews.com
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