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Justice Department backs cable change

It says lower rates, better service are possible.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 17, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - The lobbying remains intense on both sides of a bill to let phone companies largely bypass local regulation to offer video programming to Florida consumers.

Among those pushing for the bill is the U.S. Department of Justice, which has embraced arguments that fewer government restrictions mean more choices for consumers.

The Justice Department's antitrust division wrote to legislative leaders, saying the bill "has the potential to provide lower prices" as well as better and more innovative service.

"Cable television consumers would be better served if franchising restrictions did not prevent the market from creating a wider selection of providers, " Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas O. Barnett wrote in an April 30 letter to Senate President Ken Pruitt and House Speaker Marco Rubio.

Barnett's agency is responsible for enforcing antitrust laws and ensuring competition in the marketplace. An agency spokeswoman, Gina Talamona, said the letter was sent as part of what the agency sees as its "competition advocacy" role in assessing state laws' antitrust implications.

The bill HB 529 would replace existing local, city-by-city franchise agreements with a single statewide license.

Supporters of the change say the existing patchwork system frustrates competition. Opponents, such as the Florida League of Cities, predict that a single, statewide franchise will encourage "cherry picking" by companies seeking to maximize profit by serving only lucrative areas.

The bill also includes a halt to the final part of a highly unpopular telephone rate-hike passed by the Legislature in 2003.

A number of consumer groups are urging Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the bill, calling it bad for consumers. Crist has until Friday to decide whether he wants to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

Mike Sittig of the League of Cities sent Crist a letter May 8, criticizing the bill as industry-driven. "The bill is not consumer-friendly and will not produce lower rates, " said Louise Thompson of the Tampa Bay Community Network.

She said a requirement that complaints be filed with the state Department of Agriculture, not cities and counties, is anti-consumer and that the bill could lead to a gradual disappearance of public service programming on cable TV.

The governor's office said that as of Wednesday it had logged 144 calls and 188 e-mails or letters on the cable franchising bill.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

What it means

If passed, the cable bill would allow cable and telecommunications companies to negotiate a single, statewide contract to sell TV service. Currently, such contracts are struck with local governments.

[Last modified May 16, 2007, 23:13:00]


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