tampabay.com

Crist signs cable bill, but asks for changes

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 19, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill into law Friday that is designed to increase cable television competition, but he also asked lawmakers to strengthen its consumer protection provisions.

Some consumer groups and local governments had urged Crist to veto the legislation (SB 529). They disputed claims it would reduce rates and argued the measure's service standards are too loose and enforcement provisions too weak.

Crist agreed on the latter point, but wrote in a letter accompanying the new law that he believes it will mostly benefit consumers as claimed by the measure's sponsors, who titled it the Consumer Choice Act of 2007.

The law, sought by telephone companies to make it easier for them break into the cable market, will shift authority to grant franchises from cities and counties to the state.

"Eliminating patchwork regulations should encourage competition, which should, in turn, encourage providers to expand their product lines, be more responsive to consumers' needs and lower costs, " Crist wrote.

He cited a 2003 federal study that determined competition cuts customer costs by 15 percent. The governor also wrote that Florida consumers in those few areas already with more than one company save about $265 a year.

Crist, though, noted the law lacks "enforcement mechanisms like suspension or revocation of cable licenses in order to protect consumers." He then encouraged the Legislature to consider such measures.

Brad Ashwell, consumer advocate for the Florida Public Interest Research Group, said he believes it will be difficult to get those changes made because of the influence telephone companies have in the Legislature. It would have been easier to pass a better bill next year if the governor had vetoed this one, he said.

"We still contend the bill isn't likely to add competition or lower prices, " Ashwell said.

Crist acknowledged another complaint against the legislation by writing that he "will work to ensure that this bill does not dilute the availability of public access channels."

The bill's opponents included the Florida League of Cities, which objected to a provision that will nullify existing cable contracts with local governments. Cable companies also opposed the measure until that provision was added.

The law went into effect immediately, but the Department of State cannot begin issuing franchises until July 1. Existing cable companies then also can seek a state franchise and cancel their local contracts.