Members of the Tennessee State Legislature have unveiled what they call "The Competitive Cable and Video Services Act," the most anticipated piece of legislation this session.
Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh, flanked by State Representatives Charlie Curtiss, Steve McDaniel, Randy Rinks, Ulysses Jones and Senators Bill Ketron, Lowe Finney and Doug Jackson, said that the real "winners" in the fight were Tennessee consumers. All of the legislators present echoed that sentiment, but Curtiss added that cable companies lost the most.
If enacted by the legislature the bill would, according to the State Comptroller's office:
- Allow new competitors to obtain a 10-year state franchise certificate from the Tennessee Regulatory Authority
- Require new large telecom competitors to build out to 30 percent of their existing service area in three and a half years
- Require existing providers to continue to pay local franchise fees directly to local governments
- Require new competitors operating under a state franchise to directly pay local governments franchise fees of 5 percent quarterly
- Preserve local regulation of rights-of-way with local permitting protected
- Specifically prohibits discrimination based on income or race, with violators facing strong monetary penalties
- Promote the use of minority contractors to provide competitive video service
- Prohibit existing cable companies from abandoning unprofitable areas
- Require new providers to demonstrate at the end of three and a half years that 25 percent of households with access to their service are low-income
- Give video providers that deploy broadband in new areas credit against their video build-out requirement to this extent: Four-to-one credit for broadband expansion to unserved areas and two-to-one credit for broadband expansion to underserved areas
- Create a broadband deployment fund to provide a potential mechanism for expanding broadband access
- Let local governments subsidize broadband deployment to underserved areas if a TRA review determines no private-sector interest exists
- Require all providers to meet FCC mandated customer service standards
- Allow the TRA to require credits if a provider does not remedy service complaints
- Require existing and new competitors to continue to provide Public, Education and Government (PEG, also known as community access channels) access and support
The full bill, with all of its complexities, will begin being heard tomorrow in the House Commerce Committee. There is obviously a whole lot more detail than what is listed above.
At the end of the press conference announcing the compromise bill, both the incumbent cable providers and AT&T issued statements.
Stacey Briggs, executive director of the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association, said, "The cable industry, including Comcast and Charter, stood firm to make sure that our members were treated fairly and that AT&T and other companies were not granted advantages in the law. And, most important for consumers, Tennessee's cable companies will continue making substantial and meaningful investments in Tennessee. Cable companies will continue to be the leader in bringing in the most advanced products, services and newest technologies to consumers across the state."
Briggs added in a parting shot, saying "AT&T and other companies have had the right to compete under local franchising rules for more than a dozen years. This new policy streamlines the process, but it remains to be seen whether new entrants will compete in Tennessee."
For his part, Gregg Morton, president of AT&T Tennessee, issued this statement: "We would like to thank Speaker Naifeh and the many leaders of both chambers – and parties – who have helped craft this compromise legislation to allow competition for video services in Tennessee. While there are items in this bill that we do not think are necessary, we support the compromise legislation. We know that competition benefits Tennessee consumers and we look forward to being able to compete for Tennessee customers with our superior U-verse service."
For their part, legislators seemed happy that no company walked away happy. A number of them even thanked Gov. Phil Bredesen for calling attention early in the year to Naifeh's efforts to bring about compromise legislation, saying that that spurred them into getting something done.
Finally, as far as the amount of your cable or AT&T bill goes, Curtiss says that while he doesn't expect their prices to go down in a competition war, he did think that increases in the costs of services would level off.
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