As Executive Director of Somerville Community Access Television, I am concerned that the community may lose resources and benefits from changes to the cable TV franchise rules. After failing in 2007, Verizon is trying again to modify the rules to their benefit with a new bill put forward in the MA House and Senate. Although this bill does not call for a state-wide franchise, it takes away much of the negotiating power from the municipalities under the pretense of improved competition and efficiency.
The bill requires commencement of negotiations ten days from receipt of a license application from the cable company. That is not enough time for a municipality to identify its needs and priorities, let alone conduct a careful ascertainment process. The bill calls for approval or denial of a license in an absurdly short five days after a public hearing. Ninety days are given to hold the public hearing, from the time of application. These requirements work against municipalities because they cause the holding of the hearing regardless of whether the application is complete, and regardless of whether the Town/City has the information it needs.
Under the new bill, approval of the contract would be based on the qualifications of the applicant. Cities would not be allowed to deny a cable company’s application for a franchise even if the company refuses to provide for the city’s cable related needs. And if the city does deny the application, the company can sue in court. In addition, it sets new, strict limits on the amount of money a city can request for capital improvements to its cable facilities. In Somerville, based on Comcast’s last franchise agreement, the bill would provide $120,000 less in capital funds to the City from Comcast for its three channels over the ten years of the contract.
The current franchise process has worked well in MA since 1973 and there is no need to “fix” it. There is no consumer or grass roots demand to change it, and the other cable companies do not even support it because it creates a an unfair market advantage for Verizon. Mayor Curtatone has publicly invited Verizon to apply for a cable TV franchise in Somerville but so far the company has not been interested. If they were, the franchise process would be fast and easy if the company agreed to a level playing field with Comcast and RCN.
There will be a committee hearing at the Statehouse on July 22 for which the the public access community will rally the troops in opposition, as we did in 2007. People can call me at SCAT at 617-628-8826 for more information.