The cable that bind s

Comcast bullies cities like Oakland with lawsuits, but pending state legislation and San Francisco's municipal broadband initiative could change how television gets delivered
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sarah@sfbg.com

Oakland, San Francisco, and other California cities have in recent years tried to negotiate maximum public benefits under their franchise agreement with cable television provider Comcast, but all have backed down when the telecom giant threatened costly litigation.

The latest episode played out May 30 at the Oakland City Council meeting when the council voted to repeal an ordinance that would have required franchisees like Comcast to allow workers to decide whether they want to form a union.

Comcast dubbed the "Wal-Mart of Telecom" by the American Right to Work Foundation not only sued Oakland over the ordinance but also decided to void a tentative franchise agreement with the city that had taken three and a half years to work out.

Comcast officials claim the company walked away from the contract because two years had elapsed since major parts of the agreement had been hammered out and during that time the competitive field had shifted.

As for the lawsuit, company officials argue that Oakland's union ordinance is preempted by federal law and that the city doesn't have a "proprietary interest" in its franchise.

A proprietary interest occurs when a city has to manage critical public rights-of-way, such as streets, alleys, and utility easements, and must make sure it receives fair compensation for the ongoing use of those public properties by private entities, like Comcast.

In such situations, a city must ensure the efficient and cost-effective management of its public rights-of-way and must maximize benefit and minimize risk, including the risk of a labor-<\h>management conflict that could arise from a union organizing campaign.

That, at least, was the argument the city of Oakland made when it drew up its labor ordinance, and it was the argument that city council president Ignacio De La Fuente continued to make at the May 30 council meeting.

Councilmember Desley Brooks managed to sound like a Comcast apologist by claiming the city had been wrong to pass the ordinance in the first place.

"We knew that when this ordinance was passed, we had no basis to do it," Brooks said. "We can try and justify why we did it, but federal law is settled in this matter."

But De La Fuente was joined by Councilmember Jane Brunner and Vice Mayor Jean Quan in insisting that the city wasn't backing down because it was wrong, but because it couldn't afford to fight with a deep-<\h>pocketed monopoly in court.

That was the same argument that led the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to narrowly approve a four-year contract extension with Comcast last September, rather than negotiate better public access and other community benefits as part of the contract.

San Jose, Walnut Creek, and other cities have also been tied up in expensive litigation with Comcast, which has virtually unlimited resources and a willingness to spend big in court fights and the political arena. But a bill now moving through the California State Legislature has the potential to shake up the cable television playing field some say, in ways that are hard to predict.

The Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, authored by Assembly speaker Fabian N??ñez, seeks to allow telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon to provide television services through fiber-<\h>optic lines and thereby compete with Comcast and other cable providers.