Friday, January 21, 2005

Sue Me, Sue Me, What Can You Do Me?

I have a cold. My husband suggested I take Nyquil. But I don’t like Nyquil, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth and it’s hard to get that taste out. It’s the same way with resigning FCC Chairman Michael Powell. It’s going to take a long time, a really, really long time, to get over all the bad tasting medicine he spooned out in his eight years at the Commission.

He had that “De-Reg Eye for the Industry Guy” down pat. And while the Wall Street Journal was boo-hooing into their Caramel Cappucino Lattes this morning, there was a huge part of the public interest community popping champagne corks and dancing in the street.

I want to caution those public interest folks not to get too happy too soon. For one thing, Kevin Martin is the Washington Post’s odds-on favorite to succeed Powell. And for another, there’s an even more interesting train coming down the tracks than who’s in and who’s out at the FCC. That train has a big, bright, neon sign flashing across the side and that sign reads “Judgeships.”

See Powell had this philosophy that the telecom industry should just do what boys do and if, after the fact, there were problems, then hey, go to court!

"Would you rather have the opportunity with litigation risk, or no opportunity whatsoever and have nothing to litigate about? Our job is to write rules that are as ironclad and defensible as possible. But we live in a society that if you don't like it, you can sue," said Powell in a 2003 interview with the Seattle Times.

That might have worked if public interest groups and municipalities could count on getting a fair hearing, but recently Michael Feazel (Communications Daily) reported that several re-nominations included judges with deep ties to telecom or interesting interpretations of the Telecommunications Act.

According to Communications Daily, the list includes:

“Paul Crotty, re-nominated to a judgeship in US District Court, New York City, is a longtime Verizon executive.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle (Raleigh, NC), re-nominated to a seat on the 4th U.S. Appeals Court, Richmond, sat on the 4th Circuit Appeals Court panel that unanimously said AOL isn't responsible for anonymous postings that resulted in dozens of harassing phone calls to a Seattle businessman. The opinion said the Telecom Act expressed clear intent that online service companies not be liable for 'material posted by third parties on their system.'

Thomas Griffith, re-nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Judge,D.C. is an ex-partner at communications law firm Wiley, Rein & Fielding.”

Powell was right, we do live in a society where if you don’t like something you can sue, but nothing guarantees that you will win. Especially not if you’re going up against judges that have certain propensities.

I hate to deliver bad news, but Judgeships are just one more thing for the public interest community to have to think about. And just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water…

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

When I Am An Old Woman...

Hey Riley, here’s a news flash! You and me, good chances are, will both be dead in 40 years. That’s okay by me because that’s the natural order of things and I really have no desire to live into my nineties. But for my kids and my grandkids, that cable bill you submitted to the Virginia State Assembly could be a little problematic.

I visualize myself sitting in the Barcolounger asking my 64 year old daughter “Has that Riley Ingram bill expired yet?” “Not quite yet mama,” she answers “Don’t worry, finish your oatmeal.”

See it’s the language about granting unending franchises to cable ops or video providers that has me worried. You know, the part that says:

“Eligible video providers that comply with the requirements of this section are hereby granted a franchise that complies with Subchapter V-A of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, §§ 521-573, for a term of 40 years.”

Riley, old pal, where did you come up with the number 40? Why not 50 or 60? Did you ask an eight-ball or do the Ouija board thing? Is that your lucky number? Or perhaps the reference is Biblical; Moses did wander in the desert for 40 years. The whole bill stinks but it’s the 40 year franchises that have me reaching for the gas mask.

And unlike your counterparts in Indiana you aren’t even making money on this one. So what possibly could have possessed you to attempt to gut local governments’ ability to manage their Rights of Way?

Work with me on this. Let’s not try to visualize the world in 40 years. Let’s just concentrate on the next 10 to 15 years. Who knows what the cable needs of local communities will be then? I imagine fabulous new technologies being introduced at such a rapid pace that the franchises we write today will be woefully inadequate. And folks will go to the bargaining table to write new franchises that reflect these changes. These new franchises won’t be written because “Cable television service has become a mainstay of the entertainment and education of the citizens of this Commonwealth,” but because the cities in Virginia won’t be able to compete for business or investment with antiquated infrastructure.

I really should care less, I don’t live in Virginia, but my daughter does and your bill does her a great disservice. It tells her that her future is way less important than that of the cable operators. It says that public interest is irrelevant.

Here’s my advice buddy, withdraw this piece of legislation, wash your hands of it before it’s too late! Otherwise, in 40 years, your reputation will not be that of a wise man, it will be the remembrance of a fool.

Postscript: I don’t make this stuff up. See Virginia HOUSE BILL NO. 2534.

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Monday, January 17, 2005

My Biscuits Are Frying

I spent almost seven years as the Executive Director of the Alliance for Community Media fending off charges by the cable operators that offering Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access would cause rates to go up. Many times the ops argued that the consumers would suffer if they had to provide PEG support either directly or in the form of capital and equipment. Never mind that PEG access has proven critical to the health and welfare of local communities, especially in these times of loss of localism and media consolidation.

It’s no secret that cable operators raise their rates every year just because they can. Local governments can only regulate rates on the basic tier, equipment and installation. Rate regulation on the expanded tiers and all other services went the way of the Looney Bird a long time ago (thank you Congress!).

The last remaining stick to keep the ops in check is the Form 1205 that Local Franchising Authorities (LFA’s) can require the cable operator to file. The 1205 provides the LFA’s the rationale for rate increases and price setting by the op, and gives local government the chance to tell the op they are charging too much. But given that the information on the 1205 is provided by the cable operator itself, how can LFA’s figure out if the rates are justifiable?

Enter two guys, Garth Ashpaugh and Dick Treich. They were hired by a group of LFA’s to review the filings and determine if the cable operator (in this case Comcast) was being forthright. After many months and a reported 1,000 man hours conducting the review of the 1205’s, Ashpaugh & Treich have released an enlightening 42 page report. You can view an Executive Summary of this report by going to this page on my website:

The most notable (or notorious) page of the summary is page 5, Recommended Rates. There are seven areas of hardware and installation charges that Comcast reports and Ashpaugh and Treich seem to differ with, and these differences are not insubstantial. Then the pair goes on to note general and specific issues that are problematic (like reporting of bonuses and commissions.)

But more than anything else, there is a constant theme of non-cooperation. Ashpaugh and Treich had difficulty getting information from Comcast. What a shocking surprise! Whoddathunkit?

So yes, it fries my biscuits good to read this summary, after all the years of hearing knucklehead excuses as to why the poor ops could not support PEG and the nonsense they spewed about being concerned for the subscriber. It is time to end this tyranny of rate gouging and maybe it’s time for Congress to be horse-whipped for letting these fiends get away with bloody murder.

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