OPINION

Beware the Legacy Cable Guy

In a move that makes Jim Carrey’s character in “The Cable Guy” look angelic, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA) recently circulated a letter to Sacramento lawmakers in an attempt to scare them into protecting cable’s dominant video market position.

It’s now easy for cable companies and others that offer high-speed Internet services to get into the voice market, but it’s hard for telephone companies to enter the video market. The ease of entry into voice is due to a technology called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which allows for low-cost telephone calls over the Internet. The invention and spread of this technology slashed consumer telephone bills and sliced a good portion of revenue from telecom companies.

Removing the Roadblocks

With the convergence of multiple communications technologies, everyone is expecting a similar scenario in the video market, but it’s not happening as quickly. That’s because the change relies not on technological advances, but on government taking down roadblocks like cable franchise rules. And there’s a big lobby that doesn’t want to see competition happen.

The CCTA’s November 9 letter begins by stating, “The Bell telephone companies are beginning to aggressively offer local video services in California and around the nation.”

True enough, and that should be good for consumers, right?

According to the CCTA, there “could be serious negative impacts” to new competition and CCTA President Dennis Mangers asks letter recipients “to oppose such efforts before it is too late.” The impending crisis is clearly that the cable guys don’t want any additional competition. Of course they don’t advertise it that way.

Instead, the CCTA makes a weak double-speak argument that the telephone companies should not be allowed to compete because they might not do it right. That is, the cable guys are worried that the telcos might not compete in every single jurisdiction, and if they don’t do that, well, the sky is obviously going to fall.

Have Some Faith

This blatant plea for government help in staving off competitors should be rejected as quickly as a Nigerian spam scam. Competition is always good for consumers, and in some of the few areas where the Bells have managed to overcome outdated cable franchise laws, the results are astounding.

Keller, Texas is one example. A few months ago, Verizon introduced its FiOS TV service in Keller, offering 180 video and music channels for US$43.95 a month, or a 35-channel plan for $12.95 a month. It also offers three tiers of fast Internet access over fiber for $34.95 to $199.95. In response, the local cable company, Charter Communications, dropped its prices, offering a package of 240 channels and fast Internet service for $50 a month. That’s a big savings for the people of Keller, compared to the $68.99 Charter once charged for a TV package alone.

Market forces should be working like this all over the country to bring benefits to consumers. Unfortunately, vested interests like cable companies and local governments, who have controlled and taxed the market for years, are doing everything they can to stand in the way.

All in Fairness

California legislators should see cable franchise reform as a fairness issue. The telcos had no one protecting them from the sudden onslaught of competition in voice from the cable industry, so it’s really not fair that the cable guys get a better deal. Ultimately, legislators are in Sacramento to represent Californians, and they deserve more competition in the communications arena.

One Democratic policy maker in Sacramento recently lamented that it’s difficult to change the rules. “We know it has to be done, but we need to know how,” he said.

The Cable Guy will face competition, but the question is when. Legislators should not make Californians wait much longer for government to come through with help. Taking away power and money from local bureaucrats and their paymasters can be a tough slog, but it must be done — and the faster, the better.


Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. She also serves on the Technology Advisory Board for the Acceleration Studies Foundation.


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