A tale of two states' video competition bills: one good, one bad

If you think that (at least some) politicians aren't resting neatly in the pockets of telecom companies, think again. When Bob Chernow, long time chairman of the Regional Telecommunications Commission in southwestern Wisconsin, finally (it took 45 days of calling to get a meeting) met with Rep.

If you think that (at least some) politicians aren't resting neatly in the pockets of telecom companies, think again. When Bob Chernow, long time chairman of the Regional Telecommunications Commission in southwestern Wisconsin, finally (it took 45 days of calling to get a meeting) met with Rep. Phil Montgomery, author of an AT&T-pushed bill calling for deregulation of the cable industry, it was not a happy meeting of the minds, reports the Capital Times

"We went into his office, and he pulls out a gyro sandwich and starts scarfing it down," Chernow recalls. He said Montgomery then got angry at the suggestion that city representatives should be involved in hammering out details in the bill. "He started screaming at me," Chernow said. "I mean really screaming at me."

Chernow said that Montgomery had his facts wrong, that when deregulation happened in Texas, the rates didn't go down.

"The attitude he had was, 'We're not going to listen to you. We've already made our mind up. We don't care who we step on.' "

Deregulation bills nationwide have their critics, and are working to put more consumer protections into legislation. Terry Miller, senior assistant attorney in Naperville, Illinois, says that Illinois has passed legislation, currently awaiting the governor's signature, that has the best video competition bill in the country, particularly as it pertains to consumer protections.

"It has the highest customer service standards in the country," he said.

Wisconsin should take its cues from Illinois, says Gerry Lederer, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer who advises local governments around the country on telecommunications issues.

"What AT&T is offering in Wisconsin is below market compared to what they have agreed to elsewhere," said Lederer, whose firm represented Milwaukee in its recent video franchise negotiations with AT&T.

"Wisconsin legislators have the opportunity to look out there and see what AT&T has been willing to agree to in various states around the nation. It seems to me the people of Wisconsin ought to be entitled to the best deal that's out there."

Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz agrees that this bill needs help. "Wisconsin has one of the worst bills compared to states like Illinois and even some places like Texas. We should be able to do better," Cieslewicz said.

It seems that the Wisconsin bill was fast-tracked by the Republican-controlled Assembly, leaving little time for public scrutiny. The Illinois bill went through months of detailed negotiations between interested parties after it was introduced.

"I knew it was going to be a pretty controversial bill and it wasn't one of those bills that could just sail through the process," said bill author Rep. James Brosnahan, a Democrat. "I said at one of the first committee hearings that this isn't going to be the bill that we're going to vote on at the end of the session."

Illinois' public access advocates feared educational and government programming would no longer be funded if the cable industry were deregulated, and lobbied hard to make sure they were at the table.

"We were down in Springfield the day the bill was introduced, and before we read it we were on top of the situation," said Barbara Popovic, executive director of Chicago Access Network Television, which oversees the city's five public access cable stations.