Having spent at least a decade and about $100 billion getting ready for a triple-play future of voice, video and data, the cable industry faces competition from all sides. Satellite is to the left of them, telcos are to the right—all of them muscling to take a slice of the business. That intense competition will be the constant hum at this year's NCTA convention: Cable has a fight on its hands.
As long as it's a fair fight, let the best service win. The cheapest, or the fastest, or the most content-rich, or interactive—whatever gets the most subscribers. What Washington shouldn't do is put its thumb on the scale.
Entrenched media like cable work hard in Washington to lessen the blow of competition while new entrants like telcos try for every regulatory or legislative advantage they can. That is what they are supposed to do.
The government shouldn't take sides. It needs to make the field as level as possible, then get out before making bad calls that affect the outcome of the game.
If leveling the field means a national-video-franchising bill, then that law should ease the way for cable as well as telcos. Telcos shouldn't get a head start. They should be held to the same build-out standards cable met. Cable should also be allowed to compete for voice service under the same rules as others.
By the way, getting out of the way also means not forcing cable to unbundle its service or self-censor to please content nannies whining about Peabody-winning shows like South Park and The Shield. Unbundling isn't likely to happen. But cable can't be subject to restrictive content regulations that don't apply to telcos. Broadcasters are already being penalized that way.
The cable industry has been successful in making the national-video-franchising bill cable-friendlier. NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow and company would prefer speeding the local franchising process rather than a national-franchise bill, in part because the telcos will already have an easier road than the one cable had to hack out of the wilderness long ago.
The reason is that ubiquitous high-speed Internet is the Holy Grail of communications policy. Under pressure to bridge that digital divide, real or imagined, Congress, the White House and the FCC are all eager to help telcos, which, unbelievably, are posing as poor underprivileged companies that need a government helping hand.
The new national-video-franchising law may pass this session or possibly get caught up in the sausage grinder. Either way, competition is coming, and some states are already making it easier for telcos through their own franchise reform.
Speeding the rollout of Internet service may be a reason to pave the way for all players. But it should not be telcos' ticket to the fast lane.