The cable that bind s - Page 2

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

The landmark bill, AB 2987, cleared the Assembly on a 70<\d>0 vote the day after the Oakland City Council repealed its ordinance. It is now awaiting consideration and possible modification by the Senate.

It is being watched carefully by Communications Workers of America, which represents 700,000 workers nationally, including 2,000 in the Bay Area, and is one of the few labor unions that is growing.

As CWA field coordinator Lisa Morowitz explained, for cities to take on Comcast individually, as Oakland, Walnut Creek, and San Jose have tried without success to do, is like David fighting Goliath.

"It's one step forward, two steps back," Morowitz told the Guardian. Nevertheless, she believes Oakland has substantial leverage in future negotiations with Comcast, precisely because of the N??ñez bill.

"CWA supports AB 2987," Morowitz said, "because we believe it's going to create conditions more favorable for cities, communities, and workers by bringing competition to video service."

She acknowledged that the bill won't directly address the issues raised during Oakland's ordinance battle, but, she said, "theoretically, it will create more accountability."

CWA argues that in addition to creating competition in the video services marketplace, the bill will replace city-by-city franchising deals that have led to steep rate increases, protect revenue streams for local governments, and expand local tax bases.

But Sydney Levy of San Francisco<\d>based Media Alliance worries that it will simply help the titans of industry and not the communities they supposedly serve.

"I understand that labor thinks it has a better chance of being able to organize within companies if there's more competition and AT&T is pitted against Verizon is pitted against Comcast," Levy told us. "But I disagree with CWA on how to have that competition be fair. It's like energy deregulation. It sounded cute, but it wasn't. So, we can't be stupid this time around. We need to do it in a way that's good for cities, consumers, and communities."

The goal of franchise agreements that cities enter into with cable companies is to ensure that providers cover the entire city, provide public affairs programming, and pay for their use of public rights-of-way.

"But with the new bill, there's no enforcement, no contractual obligations, no timetable," claimed Levy, who worries that under the proposed arrangement Comcast's competitors could say, "We can't put fiber everywhere; we'll upgrade as we see fit."

"But that's not good enough," said Levy, who also worries that the bill will screw up community media locally and that redlining providing new services in higher-<\h>income neighborhoods while bypassing areas already underserved by broadband services may well occur.

And then there's the sticky matter of ceding control to Sacramento.

"If we don't have the ability to complain at the city level, then we'll have to take all our fights to Sacramento, where we don't have equal access," Levy said. "That would be disastrous for local decision making."

To his mind, AB 2987 is about cable vs. phone companies, and not about what's best for the public interest.