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Cable bill supported by House committee
Bells could forego municipal accords
By Jeff Smith
Rocky Mountain News
Saturday, March 11, 2006


A key U.S. House panel reportedly is in support of national cable franchise legislation that would eliminate the need for Bells such as Qwest Communications to negotiate municipal agreements.  Phone companies also might not be required to "build out," or offer video services throughout a community, as cable companies have been.

The draft legislation hasn't been released by leaders of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, but it's said to have bipartisan support and could be introduced as early as next week.  There's no certainty the bill will be passed, especially in the wake of AT&T's agreement to buy BellSouth.

But the cable industry sees the possible legislation as enough of a threat that it attacked it during a news conference this week, and it is lobbying hard to have it postponed or modified.

"If what we understand is being considered, this is a huge step . . . in the wrong direction," said Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, in a taped conference call this week.  "Essentially, you have the government picking winners and losers by giving the Bell monopolies a special break."

Currently, Qwest is negotiating a model cable franchise agreement with the Greater Metro Telecommunications Consortium, which consists of municipalities in the Denver area.  But local negotiations wouldn't be necessary if there is a national cable franchise law.

Qwest spokesman Bill Myers said it is cable-company monopolies that are at issue.

"It appears that local, state and federal lawmakers from around the country are telling big cable that the days of the monopoly with its attendant poor customer service and annual price increases is coming to an end," Myers said in a statement.  "Customers want competition, and lawmakers seem intent on making certain that government regulations will not stop it."

Comcast spokeswoman Cindy Parsons referred questions about the bill to McSlarrow.

Comcast has maintained previously that Qwest will "cherry pick" the wealthiest neighborhoods if it isn't required to offer video services throughout a community.

Arvada Mayor Ken Fellman, an attorney for the Greater Metro Telecommunications Consortium, said he's skeptical that a national cable franchise bill will get past the House and Senate during this short congressional session.

In the meantime, he said, the negotiations with Qwest over a model franchise agreement are down to a couple of issues, including the buildout provision.

Fellman said he himself is conflicted, believing in a perfect world that phone companies should be required to offer TV services throughout a community -- and that residents will complain if they don't.  But he said he also believes there is some merit to Qwest's argument that "some competition is better than no competition."

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/tech/article/0,2777,DRMN_23910_4532614,00.html