Arm-Twisting Resumes on Tenn. Franchising

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Incumbent cable operators and AT&T have resumed their pitched lobbying over a bill in Tennessee that would move authority over cable franchising to the secretary of state's office.

Representatives of the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association and AT&T are meeting with legislators behind closed doors to reach consensus on an embargoed draft of a bill putting franchising authority in the hands of the secretary of state, instead of local communities, the parties said.

Early public drafts of the bills, in each house, proposed that the secretary of state issue franchises within 10 days and would allow incumbents to opt into state franchising when one or more local homes are passed by a wireline competitor.

“We are continuing to work with Speaker (Jim) Naifeh (D-Covington), a bipartisan group of legislative leaders and other parties in a constructive process to bring real competition for video services to Tennessee,” said AT&T state communications director Bob Corney.

It's a return to the battlefield over a bill that was taken off the table last May, in the face of strong opposition from local governments. But this year, the debate resumes in a different environment: Gov. Phil Bredesen was quoted in press reports as stating he may take some leadership on the issue because he believes the state's broadband coverage is inadequate.

TCTA executive director Stacey Briggs said the parties are working out language that would prevent state franchisees from discriminating against delivering service to less desirable parts of the state.

Last year, the state's cable lobby was trying to kill the bill. Given the politics this year, the TCTA is trying to work out the best possible bill, before getting local governments involved.

Even so, the trade association continues to run public service announcements criticizing the bill as a special deal for AT&T and asserting minority homeowners and inner city communities will never see competition.

The TCTA, in fact, is fighting a two-front war in the state: one against the bill and another against the planned construction of a local pay TV network by the Chattanooga Electric Power Board. Attorneys for both sides will head back to court on March 7 as part of their continuing battle over the EPB's plans to build a fiber-to-the-home plant.

The power board wants a chancery court in Nashville to reconsider its January refusal to dismiss the operators' legal challenge to the build. The TCTA sued to block the broadband build last year, arguing that it will require impermissible cross-subsidy, among other challenges.

While the sides fight in court, the city council in Chattanooga is allowing the utility to solicit up to $230 million in revenue bonds.

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