The Feds, Municipalities, and Communications Policy.
Critics are denouncing telecommunications bills in congress as a threat to local programing, public safety, and access to broadband in poor neighborhoods.
The two bills, each in committee in the House and Senate - seek to limit municipalities' rights to negotiate terms - or franchises - with telecommunications companies who wish to deliver cable television to local residents.
In the city, these video franchises mandate that the cable companies lay their cable in accordance with local safety codes, follow local labor and purchasing rules, broadcast educational and governmental channels and public access channels, and provide access to neighborhoods they may otherwise neglect as not profitable.
The rational behind the moves by federal legislators is an attempt to increase competition by lowering barriers to entry for new providers, in order to reduce prices for consumers and expand broadband proliferation accross the nation. Phone companies wish to enter markets traditionally served by cable companies, but complain that they have to negotiate a plethora of different agreements, or franchises, around the country, leaving the established cable companies, who have already gone though this process, with an unfair lead.
The House bill, HR 5252, introduced by Energy and Commerce Committee chair Joe Barton, would create a national franchising system, handing authority over to the FCC. But the Senate draft bill, introduced by Commerce, Science, and Technology Committee chair Ted Stevens, would continue local franchising. It would mandate that a franchise be issued within thirty days, or otherwise lose authority to the federal government.
Under current law, municipalities are allowed to assess fees of up to five percent of the companies' gross revenues for their use of public land. The Independent Budget Office estimated that if the city were to lose these fees, it would lose about $75 million a year.
The National League of Cities criticizes the House bill for allowing companies to cherry pick which neighborhoods to serve, "while bypassing all others completely". Also, they say, "The FCC does not and never will have the resources to handle all customer complaints nationwide, and local governments are best situated to respond to their residents’ complaints."
The U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties, and Government Finance Officers Association all support the stance that "control in video franchising must remain in the hands of local governments to ensure maximum protection for consumers."
The Manhattan Neighborhood Network, one of the city's public access channels, has been a vocal critic of the federal legislation. They are part a campaign called Save Public Access TV!, and its website acts as a one-stop advocacy spot.
Both bills protect municipalities' right to offer wireless broadband service to it's residents. Several states have banned the practice. (Click here for a national map of municipal broadband.)