Fla. Bill OKs State Franchises

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A franchise-reform bill is headed for the desk of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist with language that would allow incumbent cable operators to opt into state regulation on the same date as newcomers, July 1.

Both houses of the state legislature approved the shift in regulatory authority from localities to the Department of State, but there were different versions of the bill. The legislation was reconciled on April 30 and approved 117-2 by the Assembly.

Verizon Communications has been steadily gaining local franchises in the state, especially in and around Tampa, but it and other potential providers successfully argued that community-by-community negotiations represented a barrier to swift entry by competitive providers.

In addition to providing a single point of contact for franchisees, the legislation also simplifies the information that must be submitted to the state. As in other jurisdictions with statewide franchising, applicants must provide the official name of the provider, its address and the name of the top executive, as well as a vow to observe the applicable state and federal laws that govern video providers. In Florida, providers must update this information every five years or run the risk of losing the franchise.

The Department of State will have 30 days to approve an application. If the agency fails to act on time, the franchise is automatically awarded.

Incumbent operators can apply for state authority when the bill becomes law (if signed by the governor). However, the bill stipulates that their service area will be the same as is stipulated in their local franchise agreements. The legislation also preserves public, educational and government channels by requiring newcomers to match the number currently offered by incumbents.

In communities with no such channels, local communities can request up to two channels. But to keep those outlets, they must be programmed 10 hours a day with only five hours of duplication; bulletin boards and other static content don't count toward that figure.

Local franchise requirements beyond those protected in the bill are declared “against public policy and void” by the new measure.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will handle customer-protection tasks, but communities with dedicated consumer-protection authorities can retain authority over video services until July 2009.

An early Senate version of the bill would have required new providers to pass 50% of the low-income homes in their service area within three years. That amendment was stripped before the bill was finalized. The approved version has no buildout standards, but it does give the state attorney general authority to investigate complaints of economic discrimination in facilities placement.

There are no limits to the amount of fines the attorney general can levy if a provider is found guilty of cherry-picking.

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