Cable competitor may be slow in coming

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Gazette Staff and Associated Press
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
— The ads are all over the airwaves: The Legislature has acted, and soon Wisconsin residents could see real competition in TV service.

But note: the ads say, “could.”

They don’t promise anything, said longtime critic of the legislation, UW-Madison telecommunications professor Barry Orton.

“The bottom line for Janesville is, don’t hold your breath,” Orton said.

AT&T, which lobbied heavily for the bill, isn’t going to instantly appear outside of the Milwaukee area, Orton predicts.

Janesville isn’t even fifth on AT&T’s list of communities that would get AT&T’s alternative to cable, called U-Verse, Orton believes.

“I wouldn’t expect to see U-verse marketed in Janesville until, at the very earliest, 2009 and very likely 2010,” Orton said.

And even when AT&T gets here, “They may never serve parts of Janesville, and the bill lets them do that,” Orton said. “This bill was never about serving a Janesville and certainly not about serving the smaller towns.”

Not only that, Orton predicts rates won’t go down.

Orton bases his beliefs on what has happened in other states where similar legislation was passed, he said.

The TV bill has passed the Legislature and is headed to Gov. Jim Doyle’s desk.

Doyle has not said whether he will sign it, but he has been generally supportive.

AT&T already has been accused of cherry-picking in the Milwaukee area.

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis of AT&T’s new U-verse service found that the AT&T service nodes didn’t cover parts of the city

Of 240 nodes, which supply U-verse to neighborhoods, only 15 were in areas of poverty, according to the analysis.

Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett called the information “very disturbing.”

Orton said AT&T could do the same in Janesville, serving only neighborhoods where it believes it could make money.

And as for smaller communities, AT&T might never get there, Orton said.

The bill does away with the local licensing agreements that started in the 1970s and replaces them with a single statewide license. Getting one license to operate in the entire state was advocated by AT&T as a faster and more efficient way for it to enter the state’s cable market.

Opponents worry that there aren’t enough protections for consumers and that local-access stations will have a harder time surviving under the new system.

“This bill is a giant bait-and-switch act, and the people of Wisconsin in two years are going to find out very few got real competition, and the benefit of that competition has not been financial,” Orton said.

Judi Kneece, station manager of JATV, Janesville’s public access station agrees.

“This is a big loss for consumers,” she said. “People think this will lower their cable bills, which it will not. People think it will make their problems with the provider go away, which it won’t.”

What will likely go away—unless Gov. Doyle vetoes the bill—are the public, educational and government channel fees that stations such as JATV collect in local franchise agreements.

Kneece said those fees, which total about $70,000 a year, will go away after 2010, cutting the station’s budget by more than one-third.

The measure does not address complaints over the availability of the NFL Network and the Big Ten Network.

Last updated: 11:16 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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