06/07/06 — County leaders worried about cable TV proposal

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County leaders worried about cable TV proposal

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on June 7, 2006 1:45 PM

Wayne County could lose control over cable TV franchises within the county if a bill working its way through Congress is approved.

Local governments currently have had the power to negotiate the granting of cable TV franchises within their jurisdictions.

County Manager Lee Smith asked the county Board of Commissioners on Tuesday to call local and state lawmakers to try to stop the bill from being approved.

"This would allow them to pick and choose who they give service to, while we only get a portion of the surcharge," Smith said at Tuesday's commission meeting.

The U.S. House of Representatives is considering adopting the Communications Opportunities Promotion and Enhancement Act as early as today.

The bill would give the Federal Communications Commission authority to grant franchises for video and cable TV rights-of-way.

Smith said he believes the change would be a mistake.

Federal officials are too far removed from local governments to be able to properly oversee the granting of cable franchises, Smith said. Local officials know more about their area and would be able to make better decisions regarding the issuance of franchises, he said. He added that federal officials also do not have the resources to respond to rights-of-way concerns or to handle customer service complaints.

Smith said the commissioners should ask North Carolina's congressional delegation to vote no on the measure because it allows cable companies to pick and choose where they want to provide service.

The bill would allow cable TV providers to avoid maintaining or upgrading facilities in poorer neighborhoods, while more affluent neighborhoods receive better technology for a lower price.

Smith said commissioners also could soon have to contact state legislators as well.

A bill has been introduced in the General Assembly that would put state officials in charge of issuing local cable franchise agreements. The shift of power would come with an increased surcharge fee to counties, Smith pointed out.

An official with BellSouth talked to commissioners in March about the possible changes in franchising authority, and said if the bill becomes law it would eventually benefit customers.

Billy King said BellSouth plans to expand into the cable TV business soon, which would provide more competition in the state. Although some in the industry believe another company would attempt to pick and choose the areas it wanted to serve, King said the existing network of cable lines would not permit such "cherry-picking" and that the tactic doesn't give a company a good opportunity to obtain a fair share of the market.

King said BellSouth would be able to get into the cable business sooner if the state was in charge of franchise agreements, because the company could pay its fees and get started. Another benefit, he said, is that when customers have a problem, they could take their case to the state Utilities Commission or the state Attorney General's Office.

"Those are organizations that have teeth," King said.

Time Warner Cable officials said they oppose giving state and federal officials the authority now held by local governments.

Randy Fraser, vice president of North Carolina government affairs for Time Warner Cable, said there is already competition for cable throughout the state. Allowing state government to control franchise agreements would allow a company to approach the North Carolina Secretary of State and choose the most affluent areas for business, he said.

Fraser, who also serves on the Board of North Carolina Cable Affairs, said the legislation he has seen looked slanted because counties, which have previously played a huge role in franchise agreements, would be cut out of future agreements.