Laying cable

If you thought your local cable service was bad already, wait until the federal government takes it over.

At Tuesday’s Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting, county CAO Paul McIntosh warned that if Congress passes S.B. 1504, a Senate bill euphemistically titled “The Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act,” local governments will lose even the limited power they now have to regulate cable franchises. In fact, the bill abolishes local franchising altogether, a move that could cost local governments $300 million in reduced access fees right away, with the potential to lose even more down the road.

Chico Supervisor Jane Dolan, who has long complained of bad service and price gouging on the part of cable companies, said the bill would make the situation even worse.

“We are being asked to pay and pay and get less and less service,” she said. “Already when you call the cable company, when they answer the phone at all, they say, ‘How did you get this number?’ “

As it stands now, local governments contract with cable companies to provide service in their areas. This allows for cities and counties to charge fees for accessing public right-of-ways to install lines and equipment, to negotiate for the use of local government channels where meetings and community events can be broadcast and to crack down on companies that offer shoddy service. The new broadband bill, co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and John Ensign, R-Nevada, would change all that.

• The National Telecommunication Officers and Advisors Association (NATOA), states on its Web site that the bill would:

• Remove cell phone towers from local zoning restrictions.

• Allow for cable companies to discriminate against residents of low-income neighborhoods by not providing service in those neighborhoods.

• Exempt utility companies from some electrical safety codes.

• Send all customer complaints into a bureaucratic black hole presided over by the FCC and state public utilities commissions.

McIntosh noted that, with new technologies emerging, the McCain bill would set up a system whereby cable companies could end up with monopolistic controls over access to high-speed Internet, cable TV and even phone service.

McCain, a vocal opponent of the 1996 Telecommunications Act that currently regulates cable companies, believes the bill will “promote competition and reduce regulation in order to secure lower prices and higher quality services for consumers and encourage the rapid deployment of new technologies,” according to his Web site.

But even Paradise Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi, a free-market fan if ever there was one, said the bill is suspect.

“At first blush, this doesn’t seem good for the consumer,” he said. “I would oppose it personally, knowing we would not get local representation in this matter.”