Verizon Cannot Halt Va. Delay

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Virginia lawmakers have tabled a much-amended — and controversial — measure that would have eased the way for Verizon Communications Inc. to launch cable TV in the state.

After House members tabled their version of the bill Feb. 3, Verizon began amending the Senate version in an apparent effort to save the bill this session.

The original proposal would have required Verizon to submit to several commitments required of cable operators — such as public, educational and government access support and payment of franchise fees — but would have all but eliminated local-franchising requirements.

Verizon’s telephone certification would have become its authorization for its move into the cable business, too.

NO 'DISADVANTAGE’

But by Verizon’s final draft, version 14, the bill would have changed the level playing field language in current law.

Instead of requiring that franchises be no more favorable or less burdensome than the operating terms of the incumbent, the telephone company suggested language that would ban terms that would “unreasonably prejudice or disadvantage any class of cable service customers’ cable systems.” It specified that language would apply both to new entrants and incumbents.

The last draft also precluded franchising by local governments.

The Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association opposed the changes, arguing the issues were too numerous for the legislature to sort out in Virginia’s short session.

The cable industry also stressed that Verizon did not need this bill in order to compete in the state.

A consumer group, the state’s Farm Bureau, the Virginia Association of Counties and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors joined the cable industry in opposing the bill.

NATOA’s executive director, Libby Beaty, called the proposed state legislation “outrageous” and a “betrayal of consumer interest.”

After hearing before the Senate commerce and labor committee Feb. 3, its members apparently agreed issue was too complex, according to Rich Schollman, president of the VCTA. The Senate version was tabled Feb. 7.

“The General Assembly had a golden opportunity to bring cable competition to consumers more quickly. Unfortunately, now that won’t happen,” Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell said. “The big winners are the incumbent cable providers, who will continue to raise consumers’ rates and threaten, intimidate and otherwise impede competition.”

Verizon officials noted, though, that the company is proceeding with its fiber buildout.

FEE FOR 911 AID NIXED

The early draft would have imposed a uniform 5% sales and use tax on all local and long-distance phone, wireless, paging, cable TV, voice-over-Internet protocol and satellite television services.

It would also levy a 75-cent-per-month fee on all landline and cellular phone services to underwrite 911 emergency services.

Satellite customers, who are a large constituency in the home district of Senate Commerce and Labor Committee chairman William C. Wampler Jr., opposed the bill.

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