Video Franchising: We Deserve Better

Imagine a world in which only a machine answered the phone when you went to complain about your cable service; or your service was turned off even though your bill said you owned nothing. Where large refrigerator size boxes were placed in your front yard and you had no say over them, or your street was torn up by a private company and local taxpayers had to pay to clean up the mess.

We are about to enter a world in which, under the guise of ‘competition’, a few very large cable and video companies write the rules and consumers and local government are the poorer because of it. Most of us in Western Wisconsin will never see the promised competition and yet, as soon as the new video bill goes into effect, the old rules that protected consumers will be gone for everyone in the state.

Last Thursday night, after a four hour debate, the state Senate passed the video franchising bill under heavy lobbying by AT&T. This bill must now return to the Assembly for agreement and then be signed by the Governor. Both actions are expected to happen by year’s end.

Many different groups had come to me with a number of concerns about this bill; citizens from my district who were concerned about our Eau Claire and other rural community access stations, consumer groups, unions, mayors, county board chairs, superintendents and a number of schools district members.

Many of the groups mentioned model legislation from Illinois. The groups told me that AT&T and the cable companies already agreed to terms in Illinois that provided for competition while protecting the interests of consumers, public access TV, local government and schools. They thought Wisconsin should at least get as good a deal as Illinois.

I drafted and brought to the Senate a proposal that closely parallels the Illinois model of cable competition. It encouraged competition while protecting consumers. It promoted low prices and preserved local control. But the proposal and most of twenty-one other amendments were voted down on Thursday night as AT&T lobbyists huddled outside the Senate chamber.

The new bill will change the way cable companies and AT&T operate. Now when your cable TV isn’t working or your bill isn’t right and you get put on hold for 20 minutes when a machine answers your call, you can go to your local municipality that holds oversight over cable. That avenue will go away under this bill.

The bill gives the Department of Ag and Consumer Protection the responsibility for protecting consumers but then ties their hands when it comes to enforcement. The bill actually forbids the Department from writing any rules for enforcement. We have a rule in this state – ATCP 123 – that governs cable companies. But this bill would exempt cable and video companies from following this rule. This is not right.

My office has been in contact with the Department that covers consumer protection. The Department may have to handle a several hundred percent increase in consumer complaints. There are no new positions at all for dealing with consumer complaints

If we are serious about consumer protection should we not at least provide for someone to answer the phone when complaints come in?

Should we not at least allow the state to write basic rules that govern competition? Without adequate protections, a few very companies will be able to bill customers for services they never wanted, send service calls to some foreign country that doesn’t speak English and change their agreement with customers without ever letting customers know.

The result will be more money out of every customer’s pocket with no guarantee of better service or better choice. We deserve better.

Got ideas about how to fix the problems with video service companies? Let me know! Contact me at the State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or sen.vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov; call Black River Falls (715) 284-1730; or Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free). Have you missed a weekly column? They are all posted on my website at http://www.legis.state.wi.us/senate/sen31/news/