Proposed Wisconsin Video Choice Bill

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On Tuesday March 27, 2007 I attended a hearing at the state capitol in Madison regarding the proposed bill that would allow for statewide video franchises. While this may seem drab and insignificant to many, it was actually very interesting and I am hoping for a positive outcome – which to me, seems obvious.

 

The hearing room was packed and the hallways leading into the room were also filled with standing observers. The hearing generated a much larger crowd than they had anticipated and they eventually had to open an extra room down the hall and pipe the testimonies and responses through their sound system. This bi-partisan bill is one that will possibly create many changes for consumers and businesses in Wisconsin. It is much larger then just a matter of who will be offering video service.

 

Representative Phil Montgomery (R-Ashwaubenon) and Senator Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) have written and are sponsoring this proposed bill. From what I understood the political supporters of this bill feel this is only sensible considering the technology we have in today’s world. Currently when a cable company – which is currently held as a monopoly by Time Warner in our area – they need to negotiate with each and every municipality for a contract to service that area. This proposed bill would not only change the language from ‘cable’ provider to ‘video’ provider; but it would also allow for companies to negotiate their franchise fees with the entire state instead of each municipality.

 

Some individual community leaders seem to be against this bill as they are frightened the franchise fee will no longer go directly to them. They feel this can hurt their public local programming such as cable access channels in which the franchise fee (usually about 5%) pays for. However, it was also implied that many of the localities do not use the entire portion of the fee for such intended uses anyway. What was not mentioned during the time I was there – the intended 5 hour session went on for nine hours and we could not stay for its entirety – that cable access and PEG (Public, Education and Government) channels are only offered to paying cable subscribers as it is. And it was never said that these cities, towns and villages would not still retain the same amount of money as they are now. The opposition seems solely fear based.

 

Many democratic groups such as The League for Women Voters are also against this bill due to the unknown. They share the concerns about the PEG Channels and worry about income and racial discrimination.  They feel that some people may not be able to pay for these services they deem necessity. However, once again, it was not mentioned that these are services that already require a hefty monthly fee.

 

The fact is, in this day and age we must have legislation that matches current society and its technologies. We must also allow for a competitive business market which would ensure better customer service, lower prices and a consistently improving product.

A big supporter of this bill is, of course, AT&T who is now offering video service through its new UVerse system. Wisconsin president of AT&T assured the committee and observers that the CEO of AT&T made the statement that the competition will be more than beneficial for the consumers.

 

Scott VanderSanden, president of AT&T Wisconsin, told the committee that when AT&T will enter the video market the "prices go down and service goes up." As simple as that.

 

This bill will also bring many jobs to Wisconsin as well as encourage new businesses to venture to our state. And everyone knows how much Wisconsin needs that very thing.

 

What this boils down to is that this is the first hearing regarding this bill. It will be debated by the committee on April 24th. After nine hours of testimony from both the opposition and the supporters, I feel they likely have more than enough information on which to base their decision. Amendments to the written proposed bill are likely to be made to level the playing field and perhaps make the opposition more comfortable with the bill in its end result.

 

This bill means more jobs for Wisconsin. Possible new businesses to our state. Better customer service, lower rates and a better product for our citizens. In my opinion, the positives of this bill far out weigh any possible concerns for negative outcomes. In fact, I really cannot see any reason to deny this bill.

 

Please contact your local legislators to show support for this bill. Let them all know that we do care and we do want a choice!!

 

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About Heather Rayne

I am a mom, wife, writer, volunteer, eater of food, lover of animals and avid TV enthusiast. I am opinionated, honest, compassionate and sensitive. I can also be difficult, hard headed and emotional. I consider myself to have a great sense of humor and am very attracted to that in others. I am striving to live an authentic life. I am attempting to learn how to find happiness in the now. I always have hope to be a better person. That being said - I can be vulgar, negative and even a little bitchy at times. I say what I mean and my filter is often dysfunctional. With me, what you see is what you get. I have strong opinions and am quick to speak my mind. This can cause problems from time to time but I do not ever intend to hurt or offend anyone. With that - be warned. I do hope you enjoy my site. Thanks for visiting and have a swell day.

5 responses »

  1. It is rather astonishing how much mis-information has been put out regarding this Bill. The popular perception that SB 207 is a thoughful, well crafted piece of legislation and that AT&T and the the Bill’s sponsors simply want to save customers from outdated legislation, monopoly services and rising cable prices is, to say the very least, grossly misleading.
     
    AT&T’s commitment to furthering competition and increasing consumer choice would be much more convincing if they hadn’t just completed a merger with SBC that will have the net effect of reducing consumer choices and price competition.
     
    But, frankly, the most disturbing thing is that this Bill, which I have read in its entirety, is poorly written, full of loop holes that you could drive a truck through.
     
    Under this Bill, the Department of Financial Institutions (DFI) has exclusive right to issue video service franchises but without any regulatory or oversight authority and a video service provider, once given a franchise, "may transfer a video service franchise to any successor-in-interest, including a successor-in-interest that arises through merger, sale, assignment, restructuring, change of control, or any other transaction. A video service provider and a transferee must notify DFI and affected municipalities about the transfer, but the bill prohibits DFI and municipalities from reviewing or approving the transfer." (page 3 of the LRB analysis)
     
    This would, in effect, allow the video service franchise holder to transfer the franchise to Osama Bin Laden or organized crime bosses without any review, oversight or approval by DFI or the municipalities in which the new franchise holder would operate. This is only one of many glaring flaws in a badly flawed Bill.
     
    It is also interesting to note that an on-line Google search for LRB 1914 / 3 which is how this piece of legislation was identified before a Bill number was assigned just last week, yielded a hit on a radical right-wing think tank in Texas headed by former House Majority leader Dick Armey, who is pushing this Bill and others around the country under the cover of "ChooseYourCable.com" and taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from AT&T, Verizon, Exxon-Mobile and the like. Does anyone seriously think they are in this to create jobs and help out consumers? AT&T’s CEO collected a $2 million bonus a few years back shortly after laying off 40,000 employees.
     
    I’m not going to suggest that I too might have some bias, but it is a bias based on years of real-world experience. I currently chair the Fitchburg Broadband Telecommunications Commission and was involved over the space of nearly 3 years in litigation against Charter Communications for breach of contract. This did not make me a blind apologist for the incumbent cable providers but I have also had experience as an AT&T phone customer and I would have to say that customer service is not their strong suit either.
     
    Under the proposed legislation, customer service standards would virtually disappear and there is no mechanism or funding provided for the DFI to handle the stream of customer complaints that is sure to result. Which brings me to the next question. Why DFI? The Department of Financial Institutions has no experience, expertise or history with video service or cable regulation and is ill equipted handle such a task. When local cable customers have a complaint about service or billing they can contact the local (un-paid) cable commission members to seek relief. If all of the complaints are to be directed to a single State bureaucracy like DFI, which has no regulatory experience in this area, the response time and outcomes can only get worse.
     
    As for the issue of PEG (Public, Educational & Government) channels which are presently required by the present federal legislation, this bill in its present form would effectively end public access.  Under the ethical demands of full disclosure I will confess that I currently work as Executive Director for WYOU, Madison’s public access television station. WYOU provides cameras, editing stations, classes and technical support to anyone who wants to create their own television programs. If you wanted to rent a camera for a day from a local vendor it would cost about $140. For $40 a year or $18 for students and low-income, WYOU provides this service for people who can check a camera out every week if they wanted to. This amounts to around $20,000 per month in free camera checkouts that are used to create most of the programs that are aired on WYOU. In January alone we aired 148 hours of locally produced program that involved more than 1,000 hours of donated labor from volunteer producers and production crews. The quality of many of the programs is comparable with what is available on commercial TV but without commercial interruptions, more diversity and far more in-depth coverage of local events and issues than all of the commercial stations combined. Many programs created for local public access stations are also shared with other access stations around the State.
     
    One of the provisions of this Bill that would kill public access stations allows video service provides to re-claim PEG channels that are deemed "underutilized."  Under-utilized is defined as less that 12 hours of programming each calendar day or less that 80% of the programming locally produced or repeated. There is not a single public or commercial station in the country that could meet that standard.  WYOU has significantly more local programming that Los Angeles and WYOU wouldn’t be able to meet this standard.
     
    It is evident that the sponsors of this bill, largely written by or for AT&T lobbyists, want to do away with restrictions on their ability to mine the communities in which they are located and put little or nothing back.
     
    Don’t be fooled by the slogans. This isn’t about choice or competition or saving consumers money. Without major amendments this Bill would be a disaster for communities around the State.
     

  2. I have just learned the following…
     
    This is the real reason communities are so against this bill is because some communities were negotiating for more than the FCC required 5% franchise fees. Some communities bargained with cable companies under the table for extras which the cable companies agreed to to get the contracts. For examples, some manicupalities would get an extra 50k or a fire truck or what have you.
     
    If this bill comes into play they will still get their direct 5% which is plenty to continue PEG stations. But they likely will not get their ‘extras’. Boo hoo.
     
    As for these ‘fridge’ sized boxes…you must have a really small refridgerator!! Those boxes are NOT that large or much larger than the boxes that already exist for phones, street lights, ect.
     
    AT&T has already promised a fast turn around on technical issues. They have now enlisted a night shift and problems will be solved within a very small time frame – I think it was like 8 hours. As it stands now, the cable company has terrible service and there is nothing in law stating that they need to fix anything in a certain amount of time.
     
     
     
     

  3. There’s plenty of spin in this debate. Rep. Montgomery said he and his staff wrote the bill in many, many meetings with AT&T. Several interested and involved parties testified yesterday to say that he wouldn’t even let them participate in that process. Not good government in my book.
    I don’t think it’s fair to call the opposition "fear-based." There are many hundreds of volunteers around the state working very, very hard at their local PEG channels. They showed up yesterday were there to tell the lawmakers about the benefits of PEG channels and the threats to their funding and structure proposed by the bill. I still haven’t met a single person who says they’re opposed to competition and choices, or opposed to communications workers benefitting from new opportunities.
    City reps were there to give their story about the loss of local control in the bill. Those fridge-sized boxes on street corners might mean jobs to you, but they also pose questions of safety and visibility, and if there was one in front of your house or at the street corner where your kids cross, I bet you’d like your City Hall to have a say about it. With the bill as-is, they don’t. No one would, except AT&T.
    The Dept. of Consumer Protection reps were there to tell the lawmakers that they are erasing existing consumer rights and protections, like getting a refund when your service goes out for four days. Does that sound beneficial to you? This bill – as-is – throws out several babies with the bathwater. "Opposing and fighting the bill"? Coming to speak our minds is the only way to encourage and support changes to the bill. That’s how the system works.
    As for those low-value customers, AT&T has already said they reserve the right to fulfill build-out requirements by selling them a cheap dish system instead of a fiber-based system. Do CWA workers still get new jobs in that case?

  4. I was at the hearing to support the CWA Union and as a consumer. And while I understand what you are saying, I do not agree with the fear based opinions that are being used in the opposition of this bill. We all know the bill will be amended according to what the committee learned from testimonies heard yesterday. AT&T, the Unions, and I am sure everyone else that attended and cares about this issue wants to see this bill work best for everyone. And there is no reason it couldn’t. There could easily be an amendment put into the bill to require allowing PEG channels. I don’t think anyone is against PEG Channels. In my home we currently have Dish Network. We don’t have PEG Channels. Why not fight them for they already are refusing. AT&T is made out to be this huge corporation which wants to devour any good in our communities. But what people forget are the hundreds of honest hard working union employees who have integrity and a good work ethic. These men and women want to provide good service because it not only reflects on their company, but also on themselves.
     
    Red lining would not be an issue in this subject. We all know that there are plenty of people in low income neighborhoods that spend plenty on HBO and ESPN. And there are also plenty of people in high income areas that do not. And providers are paying for those right of ways – in fact AT&T would be paying double where as Time Warner does not Even though they now offer phone service.
     
    Yes, the hearing room was full of supporters that have a link to CWA workers and/or AT&T. But the high population of opposition were those from PEG. I truly believe this bill can benefit everyone. Instead of opposing and fighting this bill, why not try to make it beneficial for everyone?

  5. You don’t explain why you were at the hearing… I was, too, because I volunteer at a PEG station.
    I’d like to clarify a few points. The bill doesn’t eliminate franchise fees. If it did that, it would generally reduce your cable bill by five percent. Instead, the bill says new providers will continue to pay cities the same amount paid by any existing provider. The new providers don’t get to negotiate that with the state.
    Past law allows cities to collect this franchise fee and the law doesn’t tell them how to spend it. A few use it all for the PEG channels. Some use a portion, others use none. When they collect money and don’t tag it for a purpose and use it for general spending, cities often refer to this as "tax relief" – and I do see the contradiction in that. A few bigger cities negotiated a separate PEG fee (say 1%) to specifically fund their PEG effort. This specifically disappears under the bill. The bill also says that new video providers would not need to broadcast those PEG channels.
    The concerns about discrimination are due to "red-lining", where a provider might decide to only install the new service in the neighborhoods where they’d reap the most profit (like higher-income homes with $120 a month cable bills) as opposed to the neighborhoods that don’t buy HBO and ESPN. To spin it another way, cities don’t want new providers to cherry-pick only the best customers. They’d like to see the savings offered to everyone, especially because they’re using the public right-of-way to do it.
    The hearing room overflowed with citizens deeply concerned about the threats posed by this bill. Almost all of the proponents of the bill at the hearing were associated with AT&T, their lobbyists, large business organizations, or the unions of workers who’d get the jobs associated with new video build-outs.

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