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)