TX Telco-TV Bill Won't Die

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Like the regular session before it, a special session of the Texas legislature that was considering a much-watched statewide franchise bill supported by Verizon Communications Inc. timed out July 20 at midnight.

But before it did, Gov. Rick Perry called another 30-day special session to allow the government to complete its business. He again added the Verizon-backed telecommunications reform bill to the second special session agenda.

Verizon spokesman Bill Kula said his company has been informed by leaders in both the state House and Senate that the bill should be before each house early this week. Currently, the houses are in recess, with the Senate scheduled to return to session July 25 at 1:30 p.m.

The legislature has been mired in a divisive debate over school funding reform.

“We respect the need for Texas state leaders to reach a compromise on school finance legislation before taking up other issues,” Steve Banta, president of Verizon's southwest region, said in a statement.

As legislators work to resolve that significant issue during the second special session convened by Gov. Perry, we are confident they will find a solution and once again be given the opportunity to focus attention on telecom legislation,” Banta said.

During the previous special session, a Senate committee approved the telecom bill. The Senate, on a 25-3 vote, then moved the bill over to the House. That chamber overwhelmingly approved the bill, 135-6, and sent it back to the Senate to vet amendments to the bill and give it final approval.

That's where the bill stalled last week.

First, members of the legislature from southern districts hustled home mid-week to check on tropical storm damage, then the lawmakers got into the education issue. Officials are trying to lower property taxes, which currently fund education, with a switch to higher sales taxes. But a compromise on that bill took up all the time at the end of the special session, including a final day filibuster on the Senate floor.

The telecommunications bill is a broad-based proposal that would create statewide franchising for cable competitors while retaining current local franchises for incumbent cable operators.

It would also deregulate local phone rates, and approve the provision of broadband over power lines.

Opponents include the Texas Cable & Telecommunications Association, the American Association of Retired Persons, the Texas Public Interest Research Group, smaller telephone companies and cooperatives and community television producers.

Supporters include Verizon, the city of Fort Worth, and energy and wireless companies. At June hearings on the bill, SBC Communications Inc. opposed the bill. But at later hearings, it registered as a supporter.

SBC maintains it needs no franchises for its planned Internet Protocol video-based service.

As the battle in Texas continued, Verizon racked up one more franchising victory, this time in Herndon, Va.

The Town Council approved the pact July 19 for the 22,000-population Washington, D.C., suburb. Verizon will compete there as a cable provider against Cox Communications Inc.

The telco earned a 15-year franchise and will provide video service to the entire town once its fiber-to-the-premise architecture is completed. Verizon has committed to support public, education and government channels, including the local access corporation, Herndon Community Television.

This is Verizon's seventh cable franchise. Others are in Beaumont, Calif.; Wylie, Keller, Sachse and Westlake, Texas; and Temple Terrace, Fla.

Verizon plans to launch video service first in Keller, where it is being tested now. The launch is tentatively planned for later this year.

Robert Woltz Jr., Verizon's Virginia president, commended town officials for their hard work on the franchise process. “We look forward to similarly successful negotiations with other Virginia jurisdictions as we move forward,” he said in a statement. Verizon reportedly has proposals before several counties around Washington.

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