tampabay.com

Fasano amends telecom-friendly bill

The New Port Richey state senator addresses concerns that the legislation will limit service in poor and rural areas.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published March 23, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Ever wonder what bipolar feels like? You might ask one of the dozens of telephone company lobbyists roaming the halls of the capitol Thursday.

While a heavily lobbied House of Representatives handily approved statewide franchising rights for telephone companies with a 104-8 vote Thursday, senators on the other side of the capitol dealt the telecoms a stinging blow.

At odds on the proposal are two Tampa Bay area Republicans: Rep. Trey Traviesa of Tampa, sponsor of telecom-friendly HB 529, and Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey.

Today, cable companies negotiate contracts with counties and cities. Local authorities typically require cable providers to offer service to all residents.

But supporters of Traviesa's "Consumer Choice Act of 2007" believe the current system blocks competition and raises customer rates. Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, sponsor of the Senate version (SB 998), agrees. "Local government," he said, "has been dictating the rules."

But cable companies, local governments and some consumer groups protest that the House bill will leave customers in rural and poor neighborhoods with fewer options for Internet and cable services than their wealthier counterparts because the telecoms will target only high-income neighborhoods.

With one amendment to Bennett's bill, Fasano answered some of those concerns - and sent the telecoms back to the drawing board.

Any new company would be required within five years to provide cable access to at least 50 percent of low-income households in their service area. Tampa Sen. Arthenia Joyner was the only Democrat to vote against it.

"The purpose of this bill was to provide competition," Fasano said Thursday. "What this amendment does is make sure that every person, every person in this state will be able to have a choice. Not just the rich, not just the wealthy, not just a few, but every person. Let's not discriminate against low-income families, lets embrace them all."

Both Bennett and Traviesa said that while they oppose Fasano's change, they believe the bill is workable.

"I think in the end what Sen. Fasano did will bring more debate, bring everybody back to the table and maybe we can end up with a consensus product before the year is out," Bennett said.

The bill will head to the Senate president's office, where he will decide what committees it should head to next.

Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday seemed skeptical that a measure pushed by more than 100 lobbyists would be beneficial for consumers. "When you hire that many people to advocate a cause," he said, "it has to make you wonder."

After seeing a television ad by the Consumers Federation of the Southeast attacking telephone companies for cherry-picking customers, Crist said he was "moved." But he hasn't taken a firm position.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.