Thursday, April 24, 2008

AT&T, Cox: Our favorite flavor is Cherry/Red

The post originally appeared on the Lafayette Pro Fiber blog.

• • • • •

This week's edition of the Baton Rouge Business Report contains an informative story about the spirited battle that EATEL is waging against Cox on the eastern edge of the privately-held cable giant's central Louisiana market footprint.

One comment that immediately jumped out was that the competition between EATEL (with its superior fiber network) and Cox (with its very deep corporate pockets) has prompted an in-your-face element of competition that neither the locally-owned phone company (EATEL) nor the Atlanta-based cable company (Cox) is accustomed to using:
Brad Supple, the director of sales and marketing with EATEL, says the ads represent the first time they’ve countered the competition in such an aggressive fashion. Cox says it’s a first for them, too; the companies have battled for customers for nearly three years.
EATEL's most aggressive move (detailed in the BRBR article) was the running of ads in Lafayette informing Cox customers here about the special bargain rates Cox was trying to limit to the market in east Ascension Parish, where it competes head-to-head with EATEL.

The ad has been discussed here before, but there is news in the article and it deals with the flavors of the video franchise bills up for consideration in the current session of the Louisiana Legislature.

For starters, it quotes Cheryl McCormick of the Louisiana Cable and Telecommunications Association (LCTA) for noting that one of the three bills up this session dealing with video is actually the LCTA's bill (HB 869); the other two (House Bill 1009 and Senate Bill 422) are AT&T's bills and would create the statewide video franchise.

The real news, however, comes from a woman who once held McCormick's job but now works as Cox's vice president of government and public affairs, Sharon Kleinpeter. Commenting on AT&T's push for passage of statewide video franchise legislation here, Kleinpeter confirmed a point made here recently — specifically, AT&T and the state's largest cable provider are engaged in a carefully choreographed effort to relieve both elements of this communications duopoly from current legal requirements to serve all segments of the communities where local franchise agreements now exist.

Here's the money passage:
While AT&T’s earlier efforts to get statewide authority have failed, Kleinpeter says Cox doesn’t oppose it as long as it can also get options that would free the company from 55 20-year and 30-year franchises it has in 13 parishes, which have more stringent provisions. So far, AT&T hasn’t agreed to the move, which she says would otherwise give Cox a competitive advantage. Talks are under way on this issue.
This is the Cherry/Red flavor of regulation they love.

That is, both AT&T and Cox (and other Louisiana cable providers) want the ability to provide services only in those neighborhoods where they believe they can make the highest rate of return and not have to provide services, say, all over Lafayette Parish as would be the case under the terms of the current franchise agreement here (and in, the article says, 55 other parts of the state).

They want to be able to legally cherry pick what they consider the best neighborhoods and legally redline those that they want to ignore. Cherry/Red.

Stunts, Scams & Sirens

The recent — but thus far not detailed — franchise agreement the AT&T signed with Baton Rouge is a public relations stunt, coming as it did on the heels of the recently-announced Cox rate increase. If the statewide video franchise legislation passes, the Baton Rouge/AT&T agreement will be meaningless. The statewide video franchise legislation would lift all local requirements included in that mysterious document before any of it took effect — and, I'll wager, before AT&T spends a penny on new services in the Baton Rouge market.

This clever dance that these two corporate giants are staging for us is an elaborate flim-flam. The fact is that this legislation will not bring new competition to Louisiana. How do we know this? Because similar legislation has not brought competition to Texas, North Carolina or Ohio.

But, the Louisiana version of this legislation will do long term damage to at least the 55 communities with franchise agreements by allowing companies like Cox and AT&T to discriminate against low- and middle-income neighborhoods in the delivery of modern network services. For that reason it is particularly disheartening to see the head of the Louisiana chapter of the NAACP fall for the competition scam at the heart of this legislation.

The Louisiana Legislature is being bamboozled by AT&T and the big cable companies which are acting in concert to get legal permission to leave significant portions of this state on the far side of the digital divide. "Competition" is a sirens' call that is only being used to convince our tech-illiterate legislators to sell out the hopes and aspirations of Louisiana citizens and communities to become full participants in the network-dependent global economy.

This legislation serves no other interests but those of the phone and cable companies. It is terrible policy for Louisiana citizens, consumers and communities. Rate relief will not come, but a widened gap between the tech haves and have-nots will.

Count on it.

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