Thursday, December 23, 2004

Oh Mecklenburg, Oh Mecklenburg...

It is rare that a municipality denies a cable franchise renewal. Most towns and counties do not have the resources to go through the lengthy legal process (and perhaps even court) that follows a denial. For that reason, many will throw up their hands and acquiesce to the deal the cable operator throws on the table. It’s frustrating but these municipalities have no real choice in the matter, the cable ops have very deep pockets and can drag out a negotiation forever if they choose.

Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, has taken a bold step in denying a franchise renewal to Time Warner. Charlotte also known as “Queen City,” boasts itself as a “world class city with small town charm,” and touts welcoming events such as the “Newcomer Welcome Fair.” Knowing some of the regulators involved in this decision I can vouch that they did not take it lightly and did everything they could to achieve a fair and equitable franchise agreement.

So what did Time Warner do to get themselves into this pickle?

It’s not necessarily what they did as much as it is what they didn’t do.

First, the County has no record of Time Warner ever delivering the necessary letter to invoke the formal process required by federal law 47 U.S.C. § 546(a). It would seem from correspondence that the County bent over backward to get Time Warner to bargain in good faith, issuing extensions, even providing Time Warner with a model plan for an I-Net. But Time Warner ignored the assessment done by Mecklenburg for future cable related needs and then placed unreasonable demands on the County concerning their uses of rights of way and the ability of the county to promote competition. Perhaps what really tweaked the County was an apparent attitude that Time Warner understood the needs of the community better than it did, even though the county had extensively studied the needs of the community.

Throw into the mix the lousy provisions for PEG, a suggestion that the County pay for interconnectivity, lack of facilities upgrades, the deletion of provisions for communicating with citizens who are deaf, blind or non-English speakers and Time Warner’s attempt to prevent the County from using its Emergency Alert System and you’ve got one heck of a case for denial.

Which brings the final point, if municipalities do not conduct thorough needs assessments they cannot adequately claim grounds for denial. It’s quite possible that Mecklenburg has a slam dunk since they did their homework correctly and have shown extraordinary due diligence.

In this season of cheer Time Warner needs to stop acting like the Grinch and meet the very reasonable demands of Mecklenburg.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

And so it will begin…

In January, a new Congress will be seated and a sitting president inaugurated for a second term. January may also mark the last time people who are interested in communications and media will be able to make any kind of solid predictions for the future. The birth of 2005 heralds the necessary re-write of the Telecommunications Act.

Much attention will be on Congress and Washington, D.C., but even more attention will need to be paid to states and local government. Intelligent industry lobbyists and strategic thinkers understand that the federal system is cumbersome and runs about as fast as molasses in January. The telecom industry is not monolithic by any means, and their own in-fighting is good news for regulators, but they at least understand one valuable concept, if you want rapid change…take it to the statehouse.

This is a common and smart tactic for any advocacy. State by state reform has been used in issues such as gun control, abortion, the environment and gay marriage with tremendous success for the “reformers.” And while it might seem that proposing a sweeping change at the federal level may be easier because you only have one legislature to deal with as opposed to fifty, it is exactly the opposite. After all, who is actually watching the statehouse?

A recent example is legislation that was slipped by the citizens of Pennsylvania. Verizon was able to successfully get legislation passed that prevented Pennsylvanian municipalities from building their own WiFi networks. An exception was carved out for Philadelphia (after much objection by Philly activists) but what about Pittsburgh, or Reading or Allentown? Ohio will be facing the same kind of challenge in the coming year when the industry works to pass legislation that will prevent municipalities from building all sorts of municipally run telecom infrastructure. Who knows what other state measures are lurking in 2005? As I always say “A bad idea has a way of taking on a life of its own.”

Replication is the key. It’s not necessary to individually write separate pieces of legislation for each and every state, just take one piece, do some “Find and Replace” and voila!
For that reason, regulators and public interest advocates need to be aware of legislation being introduced in every statehouse. If it passes in Ohio you can bet it will be introduced in Washington and Wisconsin. Additionally, many states don’t have rules regarding germaneness of legislation to the bill proposed, so you will see bits and pieces thrown into legislation that has nothing whatsoever to do with “telecom.” Dig deep into budget bills, that’s always a favorite way to get something passed with ease and stealth.

So while the national news will be focusing on the macro, it will be important for the public to be educated about the micro. Otherwise by the time the Telecommunications Act really does get re-written it may not really matter that much because so much of the public interest will have been stripped out at the state level.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Communications Blog to Start Today!

Welcome to Riedel Communications "Blog." I've created this so there can be an exchange of ideas regarding cable franchise renewal and how communities can get the best franchise agreement possible. Coming soon will be items of interest, commentary and a chance for you to comment on the issues of renewal. Bunnie Riedel

Stumble Upon Toolbar