When is Competition Not Competition?

When is competition not competition? When the 800-pound gorilla teams up with few 500-pound gorillas and sets the rules for the game. What we end up with are tons of monkey business!

Who loses are you and I, small companies, local government, and the little gem called public access channels.

In this story, the 800-pound gorilla is AT&T and the 500-pound gorillas are a hand full of large cable companies. The fight is over the rules followed by the companies that bring us cable TV. This time the big guys are writing the rules. And if you want to know what is happening – follow the money.

To bring us cable service, companies have an agreement with local government. Some agreements include money and support for public access channels. These are the folks that broadcast high school sports, local government meetings, interviews about local issues and people and the community calendar. Most stations run on a very tight budget. Their mission is to bring the voices of the local community to the airways.

Some cable agreements also help pay for connections to schools, hook ups to city government and libraries and distance learning.

The big boys are writing the rules to eliminate all local control over cable. All agreements would be with the state. And the state’s hands are tied to prevent any real oversight.

Under the new rules, small telephone companies and rural cooperatives would have to meet stronger rules than the few large companies. Complaints and problems with service would be sent to bottle up at the state – not the city; and the public access stations would lose most of their funding – putting many of them out of business.

Some of the details in this bill are almost unbelievable. Cities would have no oversight over construction in their right of ways. Large refrigerator–sized control boxes could be placed on city corners and AT&T would call the shots on when and where. And the law would stop the city from charging a fee even to recover its costs.

When I read through the bill, I only got half way through and my blood was boiling. “This sounds like it was written by a corporate lawyer.” I thought. I was correct.

Tuesday’s Madison paper had the headline “Cable industry, AT&T helped shape video franchising bill.” The paper told the story of the drafter of the bill being given instructions by speaker phone from Washington, D.C., in a meeting of AT&T operatives.

What has happened to democracy?

My office has been very busy this week as we sort through what is wrong and what can be done. By newspaper accounts, there are 15 AT&T lobbyists working the legislators. They have been to see us. But they haven’t gotten very far.

For most of the legislators, the first time we knew details on the bill was in a two and half hour caucus meeting on Tuesday. Many people raised concerns.

Unfortunately, the bill appears to be on the ‘fast track.’ It had a committee hearing in both the Assembly and the Senate this week. I have heard that it will be scheduled for the floor of both houses on next Tuesday.

As I write, several other states also are grappling with the same problem. Just this week hearings were held in Illinois and Florida where the headline told the story “Bill is anti-consumer legislation disguised as cable competition.”

“Legislators across the county are under attack” a public access station manager told me this morning. And the little guys don’t have the money to compete. With television and radio ads, flyers and “Astroturf organizing” (as opposed to real grassroots) AT&T is controlling the public information about the bill.

The answer is to slow down the bill. Like fish - let the light of day shine on it and see how much it stinks.

I am working hard to both delay the bill and, as a last resort, to try to change it. I am preparing 18 amendments to bring to light what’s wrong – this tells you the multitude of problems.

In considering what action to take, maybe Minnesota had the best approach. They sent the bill to a study committee to lift up the hood, kick the tires and find out just what was inside.  

If you have ideas on cable companies, or other concerns, please call us! Black River Falls at (715) 284-1730; In Eau Claire at (715) 838-0448 or in Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free); or write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov.