tampabay.com

TV deregulation fails consumers

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published May 13, 2007


The cable television deregulation bill the Florida Legislature sent Gov. Charlie Crist does what one would expect from a lawmaking process corrupted by special interests. Under the guise of promoting competition, lawmakers would weaken consumer protection, threaten educational programming and enable providers to cherry pick customers and enjoy unfettered access to public rights of way. Competition is only a smoke screen to rationalize the industry's mad dash to win the most lucrative markets. This legislation eliminates local decisionmaking and favors pay-TV providers over the consumer, who instead of getting more choices and lower rates may wind up with fewer channels or no service at all. This is a terrible bill, and the governor should veto it.

Telephone companies have argued they are effectively kept out of the pay-TV market under a system where individual cities and counties grant operating authority to providers, who historically have been the cable companies. If that were the case, a legislative remedy that levels the playing field would be appropriate. But federal law already forbids exclusive franchises. There is nothing to stop the telephone companies or any other provider from offering pay TV. Some offer it now. The Federal Communications Commission even declared last year that local governments could not drag out negotiations or use other methods to unreasonably restrict competition.

The industry already has a level playing field; what the major players want is to remove checks on their corporate conduct and replace them with a single rubber stamp to do whatever they want. The bill would end local franchising and hand that authority to the state. Providers would not be obligated to serve every neighborhood; even cable companies with unexpired local contracts could wiggle out of their obligations. That's why the cable companies that had opposed the bill suddenly joined arms with the phone companies that had been promoting it.

Cities and counties could lose millions of dollars in support for educational and public access programming. Televised government meetings could go off the air. The state would fast-track new providers, accepting applicants' assurances "at face value." Consumer complaints now taken at the local level would have to go to the state, even though staffers would "not have any authority" to impose customer service standards beyond the federal minimums. The state would even wait until next year to assess whether it had sufficient staff to handle calls for help. Providers would have wide latitude to use public rights of way in residents' yards, and local governments couldn't say a word. And while sponsors laud the bill's antidiscrimination provisions, the language is so vague it is meaningless. Even if a resident complained and the state attorney general pursued a case, providers would have a "reasonable period" to comply and could make an array of economic and technical arguments to defend their refusal to serve particular neighborhoods.

If anything, the bill is anticompetitive. Making it legal to bypass entire neighborhoods enables providers to limit consumer choice to the most lucrative customers. That is unfair. It also is unnecessary. Florida can look to models in other states if the genuine goal is to balance consumer choice.

After the telephone and cable companies stopped fighting, the final bill received broad bipartisan support. Every Tampa Bay area legislator who was present voted for it. But the Florida League of Cities and groups such as Consumers Union and the Florida Public Interest Research Group have asked the governor to veto the bill. As a state senator and as attorney general, Crist has a good record of standing up for consumers against utilities and special interests. As governor, he has an opportunity to demonstrate that he still embraces those values by vetoing a bill that does far more to expand the ability of pay-TV providers to act as they please than it does to ensure consumers have more choices and lower rates.