Loss of Local Control and Consumer Rights Marks Video/Cable Deregulation Bill Advancing Tuesday

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Group Writes Assembly Speaker to Demand that Public Utilities Commission Oversee Franchises

Santa Monica, CA — AT&T will gain the right to put refrigerator-sized new utility boxes along residential neighborhood curbs, with little or no recourse for property owners, under a telecommunications bill moving swiftly through the state Legislature.

The sweeping measure, urged by AT&T and Verizon, also allows phone companies to sell cable-style video services statewide, bypassing the local franchises that currently force cable companies to improve customer service and offer local benefits like free high-speed Internet service to schools and libraries, said the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer rights.

FTCR wrote Monday to Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, sponsor of the bill, to demand that the measure, AB 2987, be significantly amended if not killed in Senate committee hearings Tuesday. The letter said that if the measure goes forward, several changes are required, including control by the Public Utilities Commission of the new statewide franchises and their enforcement.

The letter said: “Most glaring, in terms of the lack of consumer protection, is that the statewide franchise [in the current bill] is placed at the Secretary of State’s office. This assures the state franchise is little more than an application form, while the local franchise today is actually a point of tremendous negotiation leverage.” The PUC, by contrast, “already oversees phone service and is subject to open meeting laws, public process requirements and publicly recorded votes (much like the local elected bodies that decide on local franchises today),” said the letter.

Read the full letter.

“The bill gives telephone companies the right to put large, ugly utility boxes, potentially thousands of them in a single city, wherever there’s a utility easement along the curb,” said Judy Dugan of FTCR. “Cable companies subject to local franchises have to put them out of sight, or in public parking lots, but that local control won’t apply to AT&T.”

The company says it will install one of these metal boxes — more than five feet high, about 43 inches wide and 21 inches deep — for every 350 to 362 households. It has resisted the efforts of cities including San Francisco to get the boxes placed in spots less damaging to property values and the look of a neighborhood, obviously expecting the Legislature to exempt them from local franchise agreements. “It’s like Lily Tomlin’s old phone operator routine: We don’t care. We dont have to. We’re the phone company,” said Dugan.

Consumers can expect the same dismissive attitude when it comes to customer service, rate hikes, and the current cable TV requirement that all neighborhoods of a city have access to all of the company’s services, said FTCR. Read a column on the telecom bill by FTCR President Jamie Court in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle.

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Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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