Thursday, August 24, 2006

State franchise legislation won't benefit El Dorado County

While ostensibly designed to speed the deployment of bundled advanced digital telecommunications and television programming services, it’s highly unlikely the proposed Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006 will hasten the availability of such services in El Dorado County.

AB 2987, which awaits approval by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, proposes to accomplish that by preempting the authority of local governments to negotiate video franchise agreements such as El Dorado County’s existing franchise agreements with cable providers Comcast and Charter. Driving the legislation is the big telcos, AT&T and Verizon, who want to offer wire line-based TV programming just like the cable companies under their own franchise deals. The telcos say it would take too long to effectively compete with the established cable providers if they must comply with current law that requires them to negotiate their own video franchise agreements with local governments. Giving the state Public Utilities Commission sole franchising authority would provide one stop shopping, cutting through local government red tape and afford them a level competitive playing field with cable providers, they argue.

If El Dorado County’s current telco, AT&T, could do what AB 2987 proposes, does that mean county residents and businesses could expect to see Ma Bell’s existing aged and obsolete copper cable system that marginally supports plain old telephone service be rapidly replaced with a fiber optic-based system to usher in a brave new post-AB 2987 digital world? Not at all. The bill allows big telcos like AT&T to serve only 50 percent of their service areas within five years of getting a state franchise. In practical terms, that means El Dorado County residents and businesses located within an existing broadband black hole would remain there with no hope of escape.

Nor would the bill help expand cable services in the county since it leaves intact existing county franchise agreements like the flawed agreement between El Dorado County and Comcast that's based on an urban grid model that leaves large pockets of county residences cut off from service.

Notwithstanding the measure's lip service to the notion that all Californians should have access to advanced telecommunications services, AB 2987 simply preserves and protects the status quo just as state residents, frustrated with the lack of broadband access, increasingly pressure local governments to take action as they have recently in El Dorado County's fifth supervisorial district.

The urban geographical bias of AB 2987 that neglects Californians living outside urban areas is evident in other provisions of the bill that prohibit discrimination against customers based on socio-economic status and ethnicity in determining where to offer advanced services. In non-urban areas like El Dorado County, those criteria are largely irrelevant as the county’s digital divide bears no relationship whatsoever to the socio economic or ethnic status of its residents.

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