Copyright 2005 Gannett Company, Inc.
August 23, 2005, Tuesday, FIRST EDITION
By Leslie Cauley
From Lexis Nexis
NEW YORK — One little-noticed provision of the 1992 Cable Act could give the Federal Communications Commission the power to compel cities to let the regional Bells compete head-on with cable TV operators. And to do so quickly — no foot-dragging allowed.
At least that’s what FCC Chairman Kevin Martin thinks, and if he’s right, he may try to use that authority to widen broadband’s reach across the U.S.A.
Martin, in a written statement for USA TODAY Monday, confirmed that he is considering taking such action.
“Several weeks ago I asked the staff to explore what the commission can do to ensure that local authorities are not unreasonably refusing to award additional competitive licenses” for video, he said.
Granting additional franchises, he added, “would promote competition and stimulate broadband deployment.”
The chairman’s comment is a not-so-veiled reference to a short passage in the 13-year-old Cable Act. The provision — Section 621(a)(1), to be exact — states that local franchising authorities “may not unreasonably refuse to award an additional competitive franchise” for video.
By some readings, that means cities can’t erect obstacles to keep out video competitors.
One city wanted Verizon to install a fiber-optic ring to connect its traffic lights. Another wanted it to provide a wireless connection for a local library.
Verizon and SBC are spending billions to deploy advanced broadband services — voice, data and video — across the country. Before they can deploy video, however, cities want them to submit to the cable TV franchising process.
The problem? There are thousands of local franchising authorities, and each has its own licensing process and timetables.
Verizon has only a few video licenses. SBC says that its Internet TV service isn’t “cable TV” so it doesn’t need a license.
It remains to be seen if the FCC will act. But the mere fact that Martin is even considering pulling rank like that is bound to alarm local franchising bodies, which are loath to cede power to Washington.
“The cities are already upset” about ongoing attempts to curb their authority, notes Paul Glenchur, an analyst at Stanford Washington Research Group. “What you’re talking about here is the usurpation of local authority.”
Blair Levin, who was an assistant to former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, agrees. But he also thinks Martin’s straight shot across the bow could aid broadband’s expansion.
“It’s smart for the chairman to use the FCC’s bully pulpit to warn the cities against log rolling the Bells” on broadband, says Levin, an analyst at Legg Mason Wood Walker in Washington. “The only question is at what point does he think he should intervene.”
Martin isn’t saying. But he clearly intends to stay on top of the issue.
Says Martin: “I intend to do whatever I can to help meet the president’s goal of ‘universal and affordable access for broadband technology’ by 2007.”