by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
The Missouri Senate is considering one of the best-written pieces of legislation to come before it in some time: Senate Bill 284, the Missouri Video Franchise Bill. It should be a good bill, considering how much money AT&T spent to write it.
The video franchise bill has something in it for every large telecommunications company: reducing public oversight, eliminating local control, cherry-picking high-profit customers and protection from prying public auditors. It would be wonderful — if it weren’t such a complete betrayal of the public trust.
SB 284’s most important feature is to strip local government of its authority to regulate companies that offer video services. Right now, local cable television companies receive their licenses to operate from the municipalities they serve. Cable TV companies get to use a city’s rights of way for running their lines. In return, local municipalities receive a franchise fee and are provided a few channels for local citizens and government to use, so-called PEG — for public, education and government access — channels. Until now, this arrangement seemed like a reasonable exchange for the huge benefit of accessing city rights of way.
The Missouri Video Franchise Bill will eliminate local control and charge the state Public Service Commission with licensing cable and telephone companies that offer video services. In fact, the bill doesn’t give the PSC any real power to question or deny an application — making the PSC nothing more than a rubber stamp. Simultaneously, the requirements for offering services are drastically reduced: Companies can’t be required to provide certain services or offer service to all areas of a city.
If SB 284 passes, cable and telecommunications companies will still be able to use the local rights of way, which include all of the city’s easements across every homeowner’s property. Municipalities will be prohibited from regulating how companies use these easements. In Texas, which has already passed similar legislation, several homeowners were surprised to find out that AT&T could place 10-foot-by-10-foot equipment boxes in their front yards without their consent or any local approval.
These changes are enough for SB 284 to achieve its main objective: letting companies cherry-pick the areas where the most profit can be had. The video franchise bill will also largely do away with PEG…