Three Bills Grow in Florida

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Florida legislators have not one but three bills to consider this session: one backed by AT&T that would move authority over video franchising to a state agency, and House and Senate versions of a cable incumbent-supported bill that will give local governments the option to retain authority over newcomers but requires them to act quickly on new applications.

The telco-friendly bill, HB529, has moved further to date. A House committee approved it Feb. 22.

That bill would assign video franchising to the Department of State, with consumer complaints handled by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

But incumbents have floated HB1772 and SB855. Those bills would require local governments to adopt a model ordinance on video franchising, the terms of which are dictated in the versions of this bill.

Communities would have to act within 90 days or authority defaults to the state.

The so-called “shot clock” should eliminate the argument by telcos that city-by-city franchising is a time-consuming “barrier to entry,” noted Florida Cable Telecommunications Association president Steve Wilkerson.

The model ordinance would be applied to existing operators in the community.

Local authorities have questioned whether the state has the right to override a locally negotiated contract. The cable-backed bills would avoid that conflict, in Wilkerson’s opinion.

Bob Elek, media-relations manager for Verizon Communications in Florida, said his company has its hands full building out its local franchises and hasn’t got “a real good feel” for the bills pending in the state.

Most state cable associations have fought a single-front battle, defending historic franchising standards in the face of reform bills.

Wilkerson described his association’s strategy with a football analogy: it’s playing “preventative defense.”

“When you try to stop a bad bill from happening, in my experience, you end up with a bad bill happening,” he explained. “I prefer the option of putting out a strong offense, trying to score points.”

“Why should we always be reacting? (The telephone companies) are masters of putting something out there,” Wilkerson said. By offering contrasting legislation, the incumbent providers can get a dialog started with legislators, he added.

The Florida League of Cities has already signaled it will fight to retain authority over video franchising.

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