Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tennessee Waltz

It’s every woman’s nightmare. You take your sweetheart to a dance and your best friend dances off with him. Sure it feels like betrayal, but they couldn’t help themselves, they fell in love with each other while they were dancing. Nothing personal, mind you, nothing personal.

I would have loved to been a fly on the wall when at&t, Charter, Comcast and James O. "Jimmy" Naifeh (Speaker of the House of Representatives) were waltzing around, falling in love and leaving the people of Tennessee in the dust. Their love child is the second worst piece of statewide video franchising legislation in this country. It is a clumsy and ugly progeny that is better left locked in a cellar never to see the light of day.

Where do I begin?

The Executive Summary of HB1421 brags that “new large telecom competitors” must build out to 30% of their existing service areas in 3 ½ years. Well, no they don’t. Households that didn’t have access to the broadband internet service of the holder of the Certificate of Authority (statewide franchise) count as two households in the equation and households that had no broadband internet service count as four households. In other words, the build out percentage is really 15% and 7.5% respectively.

“Broadband” in the bill is described as 1.5 Mbps download speed. Rumor has it that at&t assured the legislators that its 1.9 million customers already had access to 1.5 Mbps. If that is true, that at&t already provides “broadband” as defined by the legislation to its customers, then why do they need to meet any kind of build out requirement and why was statewide video franchising needed in the first place? Further, households that have access to broadband service, which would be all of at&t’s customers, count toward at&t’s obligation to build out access to video service, whether at&t provides them access to video service or not.

Further, the bill sets up Connected Tennessee, a nonprofit organization that has had some researchers questioning their involvement with the telephone industry, as a “Verifier” of at&t’s broadband deployment. Connected Tennessee, according to the bill, will take information from at&t, and report that information to the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. The Tennessee Regulatory Authority is then to examine the report provided and if they have any questions, they can look at the information at&t provided Connected Tennessee but they are not to further investigate the veracity of the information.

Okey dokey.

Then there’s all the PEG stuff, yet again. Not only will the cable operators and at&t be able to slam channels into any tier they want but they require the PEG channels deliver the programming according to National Television Standards Committee guidelines and then they have absolute authority to alter that signal anyway they see fit. They also make it clear they have the right to transmit that programming outside of jurisdictional boundaries and it is the responsibility of the PEG channel to acquire all necessary “rights” associated with the programming and if they don’t acquire those “rights” they are not to transmit the programming to the video provider at all. Why is that important? Because for certain things like music or educational programming, the access centers pay for rights based on the numbers of subscribers or students in a school district. How can PEG channels anticipate where the programming will go, and their attendant liability, given the cable ops and at&t have an absolute right to do what they will with the programming? Even to violate copyright laws?

Then there’s the up to 1% for capital equipment. Note the word equipment. Access centers are more than just cameras and lights, they are also bricks and mortar operations. Even the FCC didn’t go this far when they limited additional PEG support to capital expenditures, and in fact they addressed facilities.

Customer service is another lovely section of the Tennessee bill. While there is a nod to the FCC minimum standards, it states that customer service complaints are to be handled in accordance with the service agreement contract between the customer and video provider. In California, Verizon customers are required to opt into arbitration or can only bring civil action in the state of Virginia, that’s in the 2,000 word bundled service agreement and in the 7,000 word internet service contract. Comcast customers across the country were sent a notice that they had to opt-in to arbitration and had a 30 day deadline for opting-out, because Comcast had changed the terms of the service agreement. And frankly, for all of the telecom and cable companies, they can change the terms of the service agreement at any time once you are paying month-to-month. But that’s okay since the bill expressly states that the Tennessee Regulatory Authority has no power to investigate or regulate customer service compliance, it only has the ability to respond to individual customer complaints.

What is even more hysterical about this development is that at&t has no plans to offer video service in competition to cable in the state of Tennessee. It won’t or can’t even step up to the plate to do so in North Carolina, even though they passed statewide video franchising two years ago. at&t in North Carolina is pitching its triple play package of phone, internet and Dish Network. It has not applied for a single statewide franchise in North Carolina. Given that, I can see why the cable guys are so crazy in love with old Ma Bell, she has brought them so much joy. But na├»ve soul that I am, I’m having a hard time understanding why the Tennessee state legislature would fall for the hag.

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