State video franchise bill scrapped in Tennessee (until next year)

by John Rodgers, Nashville City Paper

AT&T-backed legislation to allow the telecom to get a statewide television franchise to start competing against cable companies will be delayed until 2008, key lawmakers said Wednesday.

Rep. Steve McDaniel (R-Parkers Crossroads), the lead House sponsor of the measure, told The City Paper he was going to take the AT&T bill “off notice” today until next year.

“I’m very disappointed,” McDaniel said. “There’s been so much misinformation put out there.”

AT&T was heavily lobbying for a bill to allow the telecom to get a statewide television franchise so it could start offering television service. Currently, television franchises are obtained at the local level.

AT&T’s move faced tough opposition from the cable industry and local government organizations, who felt AT&T was getting an unfair business advantage by going through one entity at the state level for a franchise instead of every city or county. Local governments also said the bill would curtail local government control of things like right of way.

Marty Dickens, president of AT&T Tennessee, said the cable industry and local government organizations like the Tennessee Municipal League may have “won this battle, but consumers have lost the war.”

“Now AT&T will reevaluate its strategy for investment and video competition in Tennessee, especially given that states all around us have adopted or are adopting consumer choice legislation,” Dickens said in a statement.

Rep. Charles Curtiss (D-Sparta), another House sponsor of the bill, said he was unhappy that the bill wouldn’t pass this year.

“But it was a calculated risk,” Curtiss said. “I knew we were running a gamble. The deck was stacked against the proposition the whole time.

But it would’ve really been good for the citizens of this state had we gotten competition this year. It’s a pretty big let down for me.”

Stacey Briggs, executive director of the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association, which strongly lobbied against the legislation, said the bill being delayed was “clearly a victory for consumers.”

Jim Spears, AT&T’s lead lobbyist, said if the bill had become law, AT&T had a deployment plan to invest “hundreds of millions” in Tennessee by offering television service in the four major metropolitan areas in the state as well as up to 70 smaller cities and towns.

Now, Spears said that plan is “going to be scrapped.”

The AT&T bill being taken off notice in the House comes one day after the proposal cleared the Senate Commerce Committee.

McDaniel said the bill ran into difficulties in the House because of local city and county mayors pressuring their respective legislator to oppose the legislation, even though McDaniel says the bill was amended to try and meet some of their concerns.

“They just don’t have the information they need, so therefore members weren’t willing to go against their mayors,” McDaniel said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

Spears said AT&T’s lobbying effort was “pretty effective.”

The battle between AT&T versus the cable industry and local governments had been called the “Lobbyist Employment Act of 2007” with dozens of lobbyists being hired on to lobby for or against the legislation.

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