Bill Stalls in Wisconsin

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While most state legislatures have concluded action on cable-franchising bills, the one in Wisconsin is stuck, awaiting the outcome of a fight over the state budget.

The bill, which will move franchising authority to the state Department of Financial Institutions, was approved by the Assembly on a 66-28 vote in May. It was sent to the Senate, where it will be heard, possibly in the fall, by the Joint Finance Committee. But that apparently won't happen until the Democrat-ruled Senate and Republican-controlled Assembly can agree on a state budget.

“It isn't stalled because of negotiations. We haven't been told it needs changes,” said Thomas Moore, executive director of the Wisconsin Cable Communications Association.

The bill, if approved, would give the state agency 20 days to vet and approve applications from new video providers. Incumbent providers may either live out their current local franchises or select state oversight. Incumbents with expired franchises would have to file for state franchising within 30 days of the bill's approval.

It also caps public, educational and government channel set-asides at three slots for cities with 50,000 or more residents and at two channels for smaller cities.

The bill, driven by AT&T, is supported by the cable industry.

“We believe the bill establishes new-competitor parity,” said Moore, adding incumbents support the deregulatory approach of the bill. They believe it will lower customer fees.

But that lower deregulatory environment is what's drawing heat from critics, even as debate has stopped on the bill. In mid August, the Capital Times of Madison editorialized that the bill, as written, is a “gift to industry.” It faults the bill as weak on consumer protections and support for PEG. (Moore said the paper is a consistent critic of anything cable.)

The Wisconsin State Journal has written a positive editorial about the proposal.

A consumer coalition has formed also, branding itself TeleTruth Wisconsin. Its members hope to convince the Senate to revise what they state is a “very anti-consumer bill,” said its Cynthia Laitman, executive director. Laitman, a former communications professor, has also served on Madison's city broadband regulatory board.

Nothing in state law prevents AT&T from launching video service today, she said. She noted her municipal panel extended an invitation to the telephone company 18 months ago to service Madison, but said AT&T has refused.

The group, which includes the state's League of Women Voters, the Wisconsin Association of PEG Channels, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and WISPIRG, question industry assertions that prices will fall due to deregulation. Laitman cites research by Texas communities, noting that prices have not fallen in two years of state regulation there; and comments by AT&T executives that the telco does not intend to compete on price.

Moore said the bill criticisms were aired during Assembly debates and concessions were made in the measure, such as a three-year continuation of support for PEG programming. This will give producers time to determine funding sources going forward.

No added changes are anticipated once debate resumes, Moore said.

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