Fla. County Beaches Verizon Franchise

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Manatee County, Fla., officials have delayed acting on a possible cable franchise for Verizon Communications Inc. until the end of the month, instead revising standing cable-franchise rules to better govern the developing competitive marketplace.

The biggest change: No single competitor can lock up multiple-dwelling units with long-term video contracts.

None of the telco’s potential competitors — including Bright House Networks, the market’s dominant cable incumbent, and Comcast Corp. — are completely happy with the new rules.

TAX FOR I-NET

The county commission is also contemplating two other changes: a new 82-cents-per-subscriber tax to be used to fund government-access programming and an institutional network, and a pending proposal to join a consortium with at least two other town governments to negotiate cable franchises.

“We’re opposed to the tax for several reasons,” said Bright House spokeswoman Kena Lewis. A tax on cable subscribers means the I-net that benefits all county residents will be funded by only a portion of the citizenry, she noted.

As the predominant operator, BHN subscribers will bear the brunt of the new tax, she added. Verizon has agreed to the levy, but since it is not authorized to deliver cable services, its customers will not be paying the tax anytime soon.

POLICY CONFLICT?

The operator also questions whether the levy runs afoul of Florida’s unified communications tax. Under the Communications Tax Simplification Act, franchise fees are remitted to the state.

The policy was written to prevent local governments from adopting new local taxes, as they are compensated for companies’ use of rights-of-way from money apportioned by the state government.

Verizon spokesman Bob Elek said his company was “a little disappointed” by the decision to delay franchise approval.

Commissioners apparently want to hear proposals from Bright House Networks and Comcast at the end of the month, too, as their franchises are up for renewal. All proposals will have to comply with the new cable regulatory ordinance approved last week.

The most notable change will affect the multiple-dwelling unit business. At the meeting, commissioners expressed their view that long-term bulk video contracts are not beneficial to consumers and set a five-year cap on exclusivity pacts.

Under the franchise ordinance:

  • Franchises will be five to 15 years, with no automatic renewals;
  • During an upgrade, operators must include developments to which others have exclusive access;
  • Plant must be built in all areas with 30 dwellings or more per mile;
  • In addition to legal, technical and financial qualifications, applicants must include in proposals build-out maps and physical descriptions of plant, financial projections for five years and a description of the cable experience of management.

VERIZON’S READY

“Do we like everything? No,” Verizon’s Elek said. But since the telephone company has been in negotiations with the county for several weeks, he said, Verizon officials believe their application hews more closely to the county’s upgraded rules than those of the other two competitors.

Verizon already has a Florida franchise in Temple Terrace. It hasn’t set a launch date for commercial services there, but said there will be a swift rollout once the company lights up Keller, Texas, its stated debut community.

The Keller system is tentatively set to launch this fall.

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