07/06/06 — Officials: Cable TV changes will limit access

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Officials: Cable TV changes will limit access

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on July 6, 2006 1:50 PM

Wayne County officials have been fighting a move by state legislators to take over the granting of local cable TV franchises, but say they do not expect to win the battle.

The final bill will be on the Senate floor today at 2 p.m. and state Sen. John Kerr said today he has no doubt the legislation will be approved. Lawmakers have said they want to open the franchising system up to more competition. Customers will benefit, they said.

"This is the hardest fought bill I've ever seen. There was a lot of research and debate put into this thing. All in all, I think it'll increase competition and lower prices," Kerr said.

Local governments have opposed the measure, saying it will cost them money and reduce TV companies' incentive to provide service in sparsely populated areas -- something local governments have often required of companies before giving them a franchise to operate.

"I'll be honest, I think we've lost the battle in Raleigh, and it'll be a matter of time before we lose our money," Wayne County Manager Lee Smith said last week.

Wayne has been receiving between $200,000 and $300,000 a year for its cable TV franchise.

The county also could lose its public access TV channel if the measure becomes law. Heretofore, the county has been able to use its leverage to require a cable TV company to provide a free local channel to get the franchise. If the county loses that leverage, Smith said, the company could decide to not provide the service.

Customers would be the losers, he said.

"We lose an educational resource and the cable companies could decide to discontinue service to some areas. We have fought hard to get access to the people and we could lose it," Smith said.

The latest House version of the bill includes a protective measure for local municipalities to keep a public, educational or government access channel by submitting a written request to the Secretary of State's office.

Legislators have said the intent of the Video Service Competition Act, as both chambers have entitled the measure, is to benefit customers by creating a more competitive atmosphere for cable providers.

They have offered to compensate local governments for lost revenue with $2 million spread statewide, but Smith said that amount would not make up for local governments' lost revenue.

Wayne County Attorney Borden Parker said the bills being considered would not affect a local franchise agreement until another company entered the picture.

For example, he said, if the county completes a cable franchise agreement with Time-Warner before the current bill is approved, that agreement would stay in effect until another company, such as BellSouth, began providing cable and other services to residents. Before that point, the franchise fees paid by Time-Warner would go to the county's coffers. Once BellSouth began providing services, that money would go to the state. But it may be some time before it has an effect on Wayne County, Parker said.

"Those changes are not likely to happen, because BellSouth would go to your Charlottes, Raleighs and Greensboros, before they come here," he said.