Wisconsin State Senate OKs Franchise Bill

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A state franchising bill in Wisconsin has been overwhelmingly approved by the state Senate, which sent the measure back to the Assembly for its consent to changes, a review that should take place in early December.

The bill, promoted heavily by AT&T, will shift regulatory oversight of cable companies from municipalities and counties to the state Department of Financial Institutions. That agency will have until 20 days after an application is made to issue an operating certificate.

Providers will have six-year franchises, but extensions of two to five years are pegged to penetration milestones for new providers.

The Senate rebuffed attempts by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities to beef up customer-service protections and guarantee free connections to schools, libraries and fire stations. Cities did win amendments that will continue financial support for public, educational and government programming for three years and which will allow cities to regulate local rights-of-way based on aesthetics, according to the league.

The latter is a big point of contention between cities and AT&T. The company’s video plant necessitates large powering vaults and cities have fought the telco over where that infrastructure will be placed.

Tom Moore, executive director of the Wisconsin Cable Communications Association, said the bill appears to be competitively neutral and may ultimately result in reduced fees to cable customers. If the bill is approved, incumbent operators will have 60 days to decide whether to opt for state regulation or remain under their local franchise agreements until they expire. Moore said WCCA members have not yet indicated which choice they might make.

The Assembly will not take up the bill again until Dec. 11.

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