Colorado House blocks Qwest's cable franchise plan

by Roger Fillion, Rocky Mountain News

Qwest's bid to roll out cable-TV service anywhere in Colorado got unplugged Thursday.

A state House panel effectively killed a bill to give the Denver telco a statewide cable-TV franchise.

That would have allowed Qwest to skip the more time-consuming process of striking franchise deals with individual municipalities - a process that cable-TV giant Comcast must go through here.

Philadelphia-based Comcast - Colorado's largest cable-TV operator - and local officials opposed the bill, HB 1222.

Telephone companies such as AT&T and Verizon have been pushing similar legislation in other states to make headway in the cable-TV business.

The Transportation & Energy Committee voted 8-4 to "postpone indefinitely" further action on HB 1222.

That followed a nearly four- hour hearing Tuesday.

Lawmakers - echoing Comcast - worried that Qwest would merely "cherry-pick" more affluent neighborhoods and bypass less well-to-do areas.

Critics also charged that the bill, sponsored by Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, would grab power from local officials.

"It takes away decisions from local governments which know their people best," said Rep. -Gwyn Green, D-Golden.

The committee's chair, Rep. Buffie McFadyen, also questioned whether the bill provided for a regulatory cop responsible for handling consumer complaints.

The Pueblo West Democrat instead suggested consumers might be forced to go to court to settle grievances.

"Right now I would think that would be the only option if you have a problem," McFadyen said.

Qwest and its backers said a statewide franchise would help consumers by boosting competition and driving down cable-TV rates, which have been on the rise.

Proponents of HB 1222 have cited a U.S. government study showing nationwide cable-TV rates rose 93 percent from 1995 to 2005.

California passed a statewide cable-TV franchise law last fall, as have a number of other states.

"This bill is about reducing cable prices," said Balmer, who couldn't find a Democratic lawmaker to co-sponsor the measure.

Chuck Ward, Qwest president for Colorado, said in a statement Thursday's vote "guarantees that Colorado consumers will be hit with another 7 percent increase on their cable bill next year and for years to come.

"The fastest relief for all Colorado consumers is a single statewide franchise that will spur investment and competition, not preserve the status quo."

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