The California Senate is about to vote on a bill that will do away with the local cable TV franchise system we have come to know here in Humboldt County. Essentially, the bill, which was approved by the Assembly by a 77-0  vote and cleared out of a Senate committee by an 11-0 vote, will allow telcos, like AT&T to compete in markets where cable companies have negotiated franchises.

The arguements in favor are all about open competition which will supposedly bring down prices and create more services for consumers. AT&T is pouring millions in to lobbying campaigns to push this through. And of course, the cable companies are waging their own publicity campaign in opposition.

I don’t claim to understand all the issues involved, but here are some questions I think we should think about as citizens of Humboldt County:

1)What happens to all the cool things that we just spent months negotiating with Cox (now SuddenLink) on their franchise renewal? I assume if this bill becomes law it will nullify that agreement. So, suddenly SuddenLink will have the market to itself without any of requirements included in the franchise agreement.
2) Will AT&T really build out their network to provide video content to our homes? It’s unlikely they will spend the money in small markets like ours. The money is in the urban areas. If they do build here it won’t be any time soon, and it certainly won’t reach beyond Eureka and other larger townships. There is some talk of altering the bill to ensure some service to typically underserved areas. But this needs to be watched very closely.

3) I am tieing this issue to an even larger one of Network Neutrality. Why? Because if this bill passes, AT&T will no longer just be the carrier of content. It will become a supplier of content. And if Network Neutrality as a principle is not codified, then the company would be able to charge whatever it wants to providers wishing to offer content over the Internet. AT&T is currently the only carrier of Internet content in and out of Humboldt County. They can give priority status to their own content while degrading the content of anyone else’s who doesn’t pay the extra tariff.

Now, I understand why AT&T is trying to bully its way in to the multibillion dollar TV content industry. It’s long distance service is under increasing pressure from free and low cost VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) services. As the popularity of these services grow, AT&T’s profits will continue to shrink. Of course without Net Neutrality regulation, telcos can also relegate VOIP competitor’s data to second tier status. And then, simply offer their own service at better quality (and higher prices).

Does this sound right to you?