Friday, 26 March 2010 00:00
Local governments have limited leverage when dealing with the cable company. Not long ago, the exclusive Westchester village of Pound Ridge was trying to attract a competitor to the local cable monopoly, but refused to grant $12,000 in property tax offsets. The competitor withdrew. A village whose residents include Tom Brokaw, Richard Gere, Michael Meyers, Susan Sarandon and other major celebrities was punished for its recalcitrance.
We’re using the exact same government and legal structures to award cable franchises that were used to award trolley franchises in Nassau County a century ago. Even some of the boilerplate language in the contracts is similar. One difference is that the trolley revenues were dedicated to building and maintaining the county’s highway system. Telecommunication franchise revenues go into general funds. Local governments are addicted to that money. We’re also not helped by the parochialism of some local leaders.
We have some elected officials in this county with little interest in learning to use e-mail or web browser software. Try explaining “Net Neutrality” to them. Net Neutrality protects websites like antonnews.com from being held to slower speeds by a broadband company with competing interests. It’s not complicated, but mostly they care about the franchise fee revenues and about extorting silly public access television shows from the video companies.
The system we have now hasn’t worked for consumers, who are still saddled with limited, expensive choices.
Some local governments are pushing back on behalf of their constituents. Montgomery County, Maryland, wrote customer service standards into their franchise agreement (for example, requiring the company to answer the phone within 30 seconds, and to transfer customers to a live human within an additional 30 seconds). In 2008, they started fining the cable company for violations. The first round was $12,000, but it was worth many times more than that in bad publicity for the company and further leverage for the county.
Other local governments have created an official Consumer Bill of Rights. Philadelphia requires publication of an Annual Cable Consumer Report Card. Seattle’s municipal code requires all cable company employees to be “courteous, knowledgeable and helpful and shall provide effective, timely and satisfactory service in all contacts with customers.” They have a city cable television office that enforces the code and educates residents about the telecommunications issues that are now so important to people’s lives.
And when municipalities make a point of including the public in franchise proceedings (in some places, it’s all practically a secret up until the final vote) interesting things can happen. Recently, the Syracuse City Council hired a firm to find out what residents wanted and needed. Thousands of residents participated in focus groups, online surveys and brainstorming sessions. Last month, the final report recommended that the city fire the cable company as operator of the city’s public access station, among other changes. The consultant told the Common Council, “A government has a chance every 10 years to get it right.”
A dozen states have now created statewide video franchising. Companies agreeing to specific minimum standards can apply once, instead of hundreds of times. So far, there have been mixed results in price and competition, but this is a better, faster, fairer way to build and expand broadband networks. This is the future.
In New York, one telecommunications firm spent $5.4 million hiring 24 lobbyists to kill off a statewide franchising bill that looked like it might have legs in the state legislature. The same company at the same time spent millions in neighboring Massachusetts and New Jersey in favor of statewide franchising bills. The New York bill included a strong provision preserving Net Neutrality.
That bill (now A.1875, introduced by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky of Westchester, with 72 cosponsors), has been called “model legislation” by good government groups because of its balance of strong consumer protections, preservation of significant municipal powers and the removal of barriers to competition. There is no counterpart bill in the State Senate. It’s going nowhere for now.
We’re playing for keeps now. This is bigger than the Village of East Cupcake. Building world-class broadband networks throughout the state must be part of whatever comes next for New York.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org