Free Press Franchising E-Mails Flood FCC

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Hundreds of e-mailed comments flooded the FCC over the weekend in advance of the deadline for comments in its proposal to modify video franchising rules to encourage competition. Many appeared to be e-mails of the same message from media reform group, Free Press (freepress.net).

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has made it clear he thinks that, to advance the compelling government interest of speeding the roll-out of broadband and video competition to cable and satellite, new multichannel video providers need some government help bypassing the time-consuming local franchising process.

In fact, the FCC held its monthly meeting last week in Keller, Tex., where Verizon launched its FiOS video service, with the commissioners combining the meeting with visits to several multichannel video operations.
Free Press, which wants to make sure that community input is not also bypassed, set up an online complaint filing form under the heading "Defend local needs from corporate greed," with a message (see below) promoting continued local input into the franchise process.

Free Press also provided an option for the e-mailers own comments, though it cautioned that their identities would be part of the FCC's public record.

The message, which was the same in the dozens of  FCC comments B&C checked, acknowledges that the franchise process may need reforming, but says that "the most important issue is not how to ensure the process is changed to suit the interests of telephone companies. Instead, the most important issue is how to ensure that the rights and services of local communities are protected and enriched. We should start with these desired outcomes and work backward to see if the process to deliver them can be improved.

"Local governments undoubtedly will--and must--play a key role in any future franchising process."

That sentiment was echoed in some of the more extensive comments filed by groups like the Center For Digital Democracy, which pushed for local oversight of companies like phone companies Verizon and SBC, and said "local authority, localism, broadband deployment, network neutrality, and community media," should not be taken off the table as the government rethinks multichannel video regulation.

On the other side are groups like Consumers for Cable Choice, which is backed by the telcos, arguing that the traditional franchise process and its local negotiations are standing in the way of progress, i.e. advanced video services, price and service competition, and penetration of broadband into underserved areas.

In its comments, Verizon argued that the franchising process was a barrier to entry and capital investment, with unreasonable build-out requirements and excessive demands by local franchising authorities.

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