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Uppity Wisconsin - Progressive Webmasters

« Annette Ziegler's Countdown | Main | Bad, Dangerous, Democratic Legislation »

March 27, 2007


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John Foust

I parked myself in the hearing from 9:30 until 4:30. It's frightening to watch the sausage being made. It was horrifying to hear Rep. Phil Montgomery (R-Ashwaubenon) describe how they'd written the bill over the course of many months of meetings with AT&T, and how other interested and affected parties were deliberately excluded from the process. He said there were lots of "gets and puts" with AT&T but given the language and loopholes in the bill, it's hard to imagine how that was done.

When AT&T asked for the clause that said that DFI couldn't reject any application for any reason, or to ever make a rule to control a franchise, what exactly was Montgomery's response? When AT&T asked for a half-dozen excuses to never carry an existing PEG channel, what exactly was the give and take? Over and over I imagined an AT&T lobbyist slipping a pre-written bill into Montgomery's coat pocket along with a campaign contribution.

It was scary to hear Rep. Montgomery laugh about how he'd first learned what YouTube was just a few weeks ago. We can't expect every lawmaker to be smart about technology, but I think we should expect them to seek experienced advice. I don't know how any guy from Ashwabenon can be expected to understand a century of telecom law, but he does seem confident that he's smart enough to write a law that'll undo decades of complicated and subtle court precedents, hundreds of contracts made between cable providers and cities, and decimate PEG channels all around the state. Montgomery and Sen. Plale rolled their eyes at yet another PEG producer giving testimony about the wonderful high school programs they produce, but Montgomery said his 17-year-old son made shows at his local PEG station.

Franchise fees are a line item on your cable bill. Yes, they are in effect a local tax, created and approved by city councils across the state. It's not as if the cable companies are paying them. They just pass them along. Yes, the FCC allowed cities to collect this and they put no restrictions on how it should be spent. Some use it all for PEG, some use a little, and some keep it all for general revenue. Yes, cities are still reeling from the limits and reductions in shared revenue from the state, so they're eager to take any allowed revenue source up to the maximum - in this case, 5% of gross revenues of franchise holders. If Montgomery really wants to shave the bottom line of consumer cable bills by 5%, he should convince city governments to reduce their franchise fee to zero percent. Instead, this bill doesn't affect the franchise fees paid to cities. If they'd proposed to eliminate them, cities would have screamed very, very loudly. But there's always the possibility that AT&T has written themselves a loophole or plans a larger court case that ultimately exempts themselves.

Competition? Lower prices? Doesn't everyone welcome that? The word "monopoly" was tossed out again and again by proponents of the bill, but there isn't a city in Wisconsin that has an exclusive contract with a cable provider. If AT&T wanted to enter a city, as they did in Milwaukee, the established method to do that was to negotiate a franchise agreement. The very definition of "monopoly" implies a sole supplier of a good without reasonable substitutes, and in which there's some barrier to entry into that market. Yet again and again Montgomery made the comparison to satellite video providers, claiming they were 30% of the market of people who pay for video. If there are alternatives and no barriers to entry, there's no monopoly. Yes, there are many rural locations without cable and satellite is the only choice apart from off-air TV.

Level the playing field? Sure, why not. Except for those new closet-sized AT&T fiber boxes at first base and third base that we can't control. And it was laughable to see astroturf organizations like TV4US, pulling the old "Miracle on 34th St." trick of hauling in the dolly with 30,000 postcards from "people who want choice". Who paid the $10,000+ to print and mail those pre-paid reply cards?

A friend of the people

What is real HDTV?
The definition of HDTV is relatively new. AT&T say's they are re-inventing it. What does that mean? Think freeze dried coffee.

You can get a lot of coffee into a little jar. All you need to add is the water that has been removed. So it goes with AT&T's new version of HDTV. You might go to the TV store and plop down good dollars for a great picture. You might even replace all your TVs with the new technology. Like any good tv you give it a good signal it gives you a
good picture.

That's the way it was. With AT&T's proposed U-Verse, which may get an incredible sweethart deal from the state legislature unless you all act loudly, the TV signal is shared with the Internet signal and the Telephone signal and all of those signals in all the other rooms of your house.

To make it happen they are using new compression schemes that take the TV signals and make them smaller. That way, as with freeze dried coffee, they can fit more into the jar. How much more?

That's the hitch. You can watch one HDTV channel in the house. With some tweaking they might get us the ability to watch two HDTV channels in the house at the same time. But are these really HDTV? Well... no, but they might look good... until you try looking at a third TV, recording, surfing the web or talking on your phone. Do all of those, or just a few, and you will soon see your internet slow down. You might see, as some have, your TV pictures with a series of block-like defects.

This is because the sweetheart deal that the senate and assembly bills give to AT&T lets them sell more services with less line capacity than our citizens deserve.

If the state is going to be giving passes to avoid consumer protection and peg support, then the state better make sure they are getting something in return. This state needs better connectivity, especially in rural and other underserved areas. By backing this bill the state will be allowing the company to do what it wants... no better service required... no oversight... no consumer protections.

This is just a bad deal for our citizens and our communities and municipalities. The communities would otherwise be regulating the companies and making sure that we get the best deal for our citizens.

Soon state law will forbid any such protections and good community deals. What are these folks thinking? Sell the store for some campaign contributions? Why not? Isn't that the way things work these days?
We should get more.

And now the worst. AT&T has been in the cable business, but sold their systems off. AT&T has been in the satellite business, but their shareholders forced the sell-off because so much of the revenues were coming from the sale of porno. This is a sweetheart deal for a company that might say, as they have in the past, that this service is something they don't want or need anymore.

Cable companies come and cable companies go. The municipalities have great experience in dealing with those changes. The state has no such experience. Is it any wonder why AT&T wants to cut a deal with the State?

Heaven might help us on this, but let's help ourselves by letting our assembly people and senate people know we should get better from them.
AT&T may contribute to their campaigns, but taxpayers pay for their health care benefits.

Make no mistake. Connectivity and bandwidth are important enough to fight for. Access is important enough to fight for. We are losing domestic jobs to far away places because, in part, they are wired better than we are. This AT&T deal steps us backward in technology rather than ahead.

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