Phone firms call on cable users in fight for expansion (1 Viewer)

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From the Virginian-Pilot

RICHMOND — Does your cable TV service make you so angry you want to chew your remote to bits?

If so, Verizon and Cavalier Telephone want to help you unleash that angst on state lawmakers.

The two telephone companies plan to offer television services in Virginia in competition with regional cable companies. However, Verizon and Cavalier say they are being hindered by state laws that require cable providers to negotiate franchise agreements with cities and counties.

To speed up their expansion plans, the phone companies are pressing the state legislature to exempt them from the franchise regulations.
That’s where surly cable customers come in.

Verizon and Cavalier have set up a Web site, www.cablechoicenow.org, asking consumers to write their legislators and demand that cable franchise laws be relaxed. The Web site argues that market competition will result in better service for cable customers. The companies held a news conference to publicize the Web site Friday.

Company officials said more than 1,200 people have signed up to receive information about the effort. Verizon signed up a majority of those cable customers at a booth at the Neptune Festival in Virginia Beach two months ago.

Even as the lobbying campaign gears up for the legislative battle, Verizon is moving forward with its service plans under existing rules. The company has negotiated franchise agreements with Fairfax County, Fairfax city, the town of Herndon and the Marine Corps base at Quantico. Video services began in Herndon and part of Fairfax County last week.

Verizon also is installing fiber-optic lines and equipment in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, but it has not initiated franchise negotiations in the region yet, said Verizon spokesman Harry Mitchell.

Jeff Merriman, Verizon’s manager of government affairs, said franchise negotiations are expensive and time consuming. Local governments often require providers to serve all customers living in a city or county, not just those in densely populated areas. That requires the companies to invest in infrastructure that serves relatively few customers.

Verizon and Cavalier are backing legislation that would allow them to provide cable-type services in any locality where they provide phone services. They would be required to pay local governments a fee and to provide public access channels, but no franchise negotiation would be necessary.
Cable companies have proposed an alternative to ensure equal treatment for existing providers and the phone companies, said Ray LaMura, a lobbyist for the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association.

Under its proposal, local governments would have 120 days to negotiate a franchise with a new provider. If they don’t meet that deadline, the new cable provider would be allowed to offer its services under the same obligations already imposed on existing companies operating in a given locality.
If a local government approves a less-restrictive franchise for a new company, existing cable providers would be allowed to revise their franchise agreements accordingly.
Verizon opposes the cable measure, saying it offers little change from the status quo.

Jeannine Kenney, a senior policy analyst for the nonprofit Consumers Union, said Verizon and other phone companies are seeking exemptions from franchise requirements in a number of state legislatures and as well as in Congress. She said increased competition should result in lower costs, better quality and a greater selection of services for consumers.

However, Kenney also said consumer groups are concerned that Verizon and other phone companies may target high-end consumers willing to purchase bundled phone, television and broadband Internet services. That could leave mid- to low-end customers with a single cable provider, she said.

Mitchell said Verizon is allowing customers in Herndon to buy just television service .
 

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