Cable bill: Viewer discretion advised

Published May 15, 2007

My favorite part of the big cable TV bill just passed by our Legislature is that it transfers complaints about poor service to Tallahassee.

Yep. I can just see the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the agency assigned to this task, swinging into action.

Maybe a crack squad will wear superhero uniforms and hang out on call like firefighters. Somebody calls in a complaint, see, and a red light and siren go off.

"Error on cable bill, 1200 block of Main Street in Yeehaw Junction!" the crew chief shouts, holding a hand to his earpiece. "Everybody into the Flying Vid-Mobile, stat!"

They jet off directly to the scene, pummeling the local cable TV guy with the Iron Fist of Justice until he promises never to double-bill anyone for HBO ever again.

Just a fantasy, of course. I gotta break some bad news here. There ain't gonna be no superhero squad, no Vid-Mobile and no uniforms.

In truth, there isn't gonna be squat. The new law says the state will handle all the complaints, but that it can't really do much about it.

So quality-of-service regulation is one of the things that consumer groups are worried about with House Bill 529, and why they're asking Gov. Charlie Crist to veto it.

The bill ends local video regulation in Florida. The premise is that if both your cable company and your phone company want to sell you video, we don't need local regulation any more.

That includes customer service. That includes price. That includes the requirement to serve all areas. No need for any such pesky rules at the local level. Instead, we'll have one-stop licensing of video companies at the state level.

Now, in the real world, there is conflicting evidence on whether merely going from a one-company local monopoly to a two-company duopoly really solves all evils, or even reduces prices in the long run.

But for the Legislature, this bill was ready to pass from the instant that Florida's cable and telephone industries made a devil's deal with each other. The cable guys dropped their opposition to the phone guys, on the condition that they got to play by the same new rules.

It was like watching kings dividing up the peons.

There's just one, teeny little remaining hurdle for House Bill 529: the governor.

Crist has made his career as a proconsumer politician. Now consumer groups are putting up a united front in asking him to veto the bill.

He owes nothing to the utilities and everything to his populist track record. It ought to be easier for him to veto the bill than to sign it.

So here's my fantasy: Crist vetoes the bill and tells the parties involved, "It's not enough that you two made a deal with each other. Make a deal with the consumer guys, too, to phase in the transition to this new market in a way that satisfies them, and I'll sign that bill."

Unrealistic? Heck, it's more realistic than counting on the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to get a Flying Vid-Mobile.

* * *

At the risk of desperate and unseemly self-promotion, I hope you'll check out my online site, TroxBlog, for extra commentary, reader reaction and weekly Tuesday live chats - there's one from noon to 1 p.m. today. Look for the "Blogs" link on www.tampabay.com, or just type in the direct address: blogs.tampabay.com/troxler.