May 8, 2007

Cable regulation - A Chicago Media Action response in the Chicago Tribune

The Tribune's May 1 editorial "Bring on cable competition" adopts the enthusiastic tone of AT&T's advertising campaign when extolling the virtues of cable competition. But the Tribune does nothing to prove its contention that in other states, lower cable TV prices and a faster rollout of high-speed broadband service from cable providers has resulted.

In fact much has been written about the extremely slow deployment of AT&T's U-verse television system. In the 19 months since AT&T signed its first statewide deal, there are only 20,000 subscribers to the U-verse service nationwide. And once introductory rates are removed from the calculation, there is little evidence that lower rates have resulted from AT&T's appearance in the market.

The Tribune also fails to give serious consideration to the public cost of legislation driven by a corporation attempting to serve its own interests. Build-out requirements have been a historic part of cable regulation to make sure everyone in a community is served. But AT&T has no intention of building out 100 percent of the market. Choice will only come to those customers it chooses.

In a number of states, including most recently in Georgia and Missouri, AT&T-backed legislation will permanently reduce or end funding for public, education and governmental access channels. The people's voice will be silenced. And AT&T's stockholders will get a few extra pennies in their pockets.

Illinois lawmakers need to give considered attention to sweeping telecommunications changes that will dismantle a franchising framework that has been working for decades to protect local communities. Illinois cannot afford to allow the evisceration of the public interest that has taken place in laws rammed through other states by AT&T.

The Tribune rightly calls for legislators to "peer through the thicket of lobbyists on this legislation and create fair competition." But in order to best serve the public, lawmakers must demand legislation that does not line one industry's pockets at the public's expense. In the aftermath of electrical deregulation, Illinois has been there, done that.

Mitchell Szczepanczyk
Chicago Media Action