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Chicago In These Times

As a national publication based in Chicago, In These Times often provides better coverage of the local scene than its rivals – but this week’s issue seems particularly noteworthy on that account.

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Cable Deregulation Challenged

Growing attention on a proposed statewide cable franchise bill could slow a legislative blitz by supporters of telecommunications giant AT&T.

State Representative James Brosnahan (D-Oak Lawn) was expecting the House Telecommunications Committee he chairs to vote Wednesday to approve HB 1500, the franchise bill he has sponsored, but the vote could be delayed. The bill would strip local municipalities of cable franchising power and create state franchises authorized by the Illinois Commerce Commission, going far toward deregulating the industry in Illinois.

AT&T has poured money into a full-court press by lobbyists in support of the measure, along with an extensive TV ad campaign suggesting that HB 1500 promises competition and lower cable rates.

But last week Ald. Edward Burke introduced a City Council resolution calling on the legislature to reject the bill. He plans to hold hearings on the issue with Attorney General Lisa Madigan and others, said spokesperson Donal Quinlan. A press conference called by Burke Tuesday morning (10 a.m. at City Hall, room 302) will raise the profile of opposition to the measure by the city and by municipalities across the state.

Public Access Channels Threatened

Wednesday morning, as the committee meets, community activists backing Chicago’s CAN-TV and public access channels across the state will arrive in Springfield for a citizen lobby day by the ]Keep Us Connected Coalition. (Community Media Workshop is a coalition member; CMW president Thom Clark hosts a show on CAN-TV.) The coalition says HB 1500 would undercut existing guarantees on funding, channel accessiblity and quality for public access cable, would provide for no new public channels in new service areas, and would establish stringent “no-repeat” requirements – not applying to commercial channels – allowing providers to eliminate public access channels.

“Instead of talking about strengthening public access, as we should be, we’re fighting to get back to first base,” said Barbara Popovic of CAN-TV.

Representatives of municipalities are challenging the basic concept of HB 1500 – that state franchises are needed to promote cable competition. They point out that by overriding local control, the bill eliminates basic customer service protections now enforced by municipalities, as well as local franchise requirements that entire communities be served.

Without anti-redlining provisions – which are probably only practical on a local basis – the measure won’t promote competition and lower rates across the board, but will create a dynamic where rates go down in affluent areas but are “subsidized by higher prices paid by residents in lower-income, non-competitive areas,” Burke argues in his resolution.

Eminent Domain for AT&T

Municipalities are outraged that for the first time they’ll have no oversight over contruction in their public right-of-ways, said Terry Miller, an attorney with the City of Naperville. Local officials worry about refrigerator-sized utility boxes which AT&T would have blanket authorization to install under the bill’s franchise, he said.

Under the bill the ICC can authorize franchises but has no enforcement power. Supporters of HB 1500 have promised “self-enforcement.”

Most shocking for many is the bill’s grant of eminent domain powers to AT&T and other state franchise holders, with no requirement for just compensation or avenue for appeal. HB 1500 “gives away the store regarding the ability of a private company to encroach on residential property in ways we’ve never seen before,” Quinlan said. “It’s extremely problematic.”

The eminent domain provision is not expected to survive current negotiations over amendments, but it’s indicative of the way Brosnahan’s bill contains “an a la carte sampling” of only the provisions in cable law that favor AT&T, Miller said.

“What’s clear about this bill is that it was written by telecommunications lobbyists,” according to technology analyst Sascha Meinrath, executive director of the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network. “I can only imagine that the goal was to fast-track this bill and sneak it through before the public got organized enough to demand that it be withdrawn.”

“AT&T wants to make this happen now because they know that with more time, more questions will be raised,” said Brian Imus of Illinois PIRG, calling HB 1500 “a sweetheart deal for AT&T.”

He points out, “There’s nothing now blocking competition, nothing stopping AT&T from negotiating cable franchises with local municipalities.”

‘Local Franchising Works’

“Local franchising works real well,” points out Roger Huebner of the Illinois Municipal League. He’s meeting with Brosnahan Tuesday to propose amendments to the Municipal Code and existing statutes that currently cover cable franchising, in order to address AT&T’s complaints about aspects of the process that are cumbersome, he said. The approach embodied in HB 1500 – creating a new article in the Public Utilities Act to give the ICC authority to issue state cable franchises – is unnecessary, he maintains.

Verizon, AT&T’s chief competitor for internet provider television (IPTV), has snapped up hundreds of local franchises on the East Coast, and according to Huebner, AT&T itself has local video franchises in several Illinois communities.

The municipal amendments should get full consideration, said Miller. That would mean no committee vote on Wednesday.

Brosnahan’s office said he was waiting for proposed amendments from the Attorney General’s office. Another hearing on the bill has now been scheduled for one week after this Wednesday’s hearing.

Illinois PIRG was joined by national consumer groups including Consumers Union in opposing the bill in its original form. “The unintended consequence will be systematic redlining on a statewide scale,” according to a letter from Consumer Union’s Jeannine Kenney and others to state legislators. They say other states with similar deregulation schemes have seen prices increase, “leaving consumers with nothing but empty promises.”

Consumer groups also emphasize the importance on non-discriminatory “net neutrality” provisions ensuring free access to content to the Internet.

Michael Maranda of the Chicago Digital Access Alliance points out that AT&T is pushing legislation legalizing redlining and undermining local control and access even as it presents itself as a bidder on Chicago’s wireless network, which parallels the city’s cable franchises – and requires a digital inclusion plan. “It’s a horrible bill and a discredit to the state,” he said.



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