As cable TV bill heads to Crist, debate goes on

Published May 1, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - The House cleared for Gov. Charlie Crist's signature on Monday a long-disputed bill that would open the cable TV market to fiber-optic telecommunications companies.

Politicians on every side say they want first and foremost to achieve what's best for their constituents: choice and cost savings.

"Consumers will have a choice, they'll have control, " said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, sponsor of the well-lobbied cable franchising bill.

But in the waning days of the legislative session, as the heavily amended bill heads to the governor, it is increasingly unclear how consumers will fare if the bill becomes law.

Under the "Consumer Choice Act of 2007, " telephone companies can petition the state to establish cable TV and Internet services franchises, rather than going through the time-consuming process of striking deals with local governments the way cable companies have done.

Brad Ashwell, consumer advocate for Florida Public Interest Research Group, said that while rates may drop initially, he expects gradual increases over time. "This bill doesn't guarantee that everyone is going to be served or enjoy the benefits of 21st century technology."

Though the battle pitted cable and phone companies against each other, legislators managed to make both sides happy late last week by allowing cable companies to break their existing local government contracts as early as July in lieu of state-issued contracts. The immediate losers in that arrangement were local governments, which stand to lose at least $19-million in in-kind services from the contracts, according to a legislative analyst.

Florida League of Cities lobbyist John Wayne Smith said he's prepared to ask Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the measure. Of particular concern is local governments' control over access to rights of way.

Heavily lobbied lawmakers like Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, touted the measure as one of the best consumer action bills passed by the Legislature this session.

But some consumer groups still have unresolved concerns about whether the bill will encourage telephone companies to seek the most profitable neighborhoods by offering bundled services to those who are best equipped to pay.

The bill bans the government from forcing utilities to build out their infrastructure to offer services to all neighborhoods. But it also names the attorney general as the agent responsible for enforcing antidiscrimination rules, giving the office the power to fine utilities not in compliance.

The antidiscrimination provision seems to be open to some interpretation, with the antibuildout language giving companies accused of discriminating a strong leg to stand on.

Among other provisions:

- The bill makes it easier for low-income customers to receive discounted telephone service through the Lifeline program.

- Consumer complaints will go to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services instead of to local governments.

- Puts an end to the final round of a controversial telephone service rate increase passed to customers in 2003.

- Requires that cable customers be informed that public access channels may contain adult content and, as such, they can agree not to take them.