Cancel their bill

it’s an issue that has received only limited media attention, so it may come as a surprise to most Massachusetts residents that a single telecommunications corporation — Verizon — has slipped a special interest bill (S1531) into the current legislative session. But it’s true. As state and local governments struggle to cope with a perilous fiscal crisis, Verizon and its backers on Beacon Hill have decided this is the perfect moment to seek legislative help in boosting profits for the telecommunications giant’s FiOS television, phone, and Internet service. Their strategy is to undermine the current cable licensing system in ways that would reduce the ability of cities and towns to negotiate on behalf of their residents.

Like its 2007 predecessor (S1975), which stalled in the wake of withering protests from local elected officials and community access television groups, the current bill is written by and for a single company. All by itself, that fact should set off alarm bells. We are all accustomed to entire industries pleading their cases on Beacon Hill, but a single company? That’s really putting the “special” in “special interest.” As if that weren’t enough, the “problems” this legislation purports to “solve” simply don’t exist.

Verizon claims that it doesn’t have sufficient access to the state’s local cable markets and that it needs to knock down artificial barriers. But if that’s the case, how has Verizon been able to obtain a license in every one of the 96 communities it has approached — with, at least for now, the lone exception of Hull? And why have dozens of communities that have rolled out the welcome mat for FiOS been snubbed by Verizon? (Somerville, where I have been mayor since 2004, is one of 48 Massachusetts municipalities that, back in June 2007, actually signed a joint letter welcoming Verizon as a potential provider and offering the company an expedited license negotiation process. Verizon never replied in writing, although they have since asked for, and received, licenses in 11 of the signatory communities.)

Still, Verizon says that there is something wrong with the current system and that it needs to be changed in order to “open up” competition and provide more choices (and, by implication, lower prices) to consumers. The company argues, and has apparently convinced some lawmakers, that it should be given further incentives to provide more broadband installations in Massachusetts. Not content with the tax breaks currently built into telecommunications law (telecom companies haven’t paid local property taxes on many of their holdings since 1913), Verizon wants to put a 90-day limit on local negotiations and then force communities to take whatever offer is on the table at the end of that period.

The proposed legislation wouldn’t benefit consumers, who would have no added protections, and it would benefit other cable providers only after their current licenses expire. In the meantime, it would give Verizon a window in which, with only the most general limits, it could write its own ticket, setting minimal levels of support for local public access, educational, and government channels (PEG in the parlance of cable license agreements). It would also free Verizon to cherry-pick individual neighborhoods, where installation costs may be lower or residents may be wealthier, while bypassing the requirement to serve an entire municipality. You can’t blame Verizon for trying. What business wouldn’t like to have a legally mandated leg up on the competition?

here in somerville, we have a proud tradition of support for cable competition and for a robust public access television community. Somerville was the first community in the country to open its cable market to multiple entrants, and Somerville is home to the nation’s first independent, nonprofit community access television corporation. We pride ourselves on providing a level playing field for multiple entrants and ensuring that our residents have as much choice as possible in cable television suppliers.

Of course, we do have a few straightforward conditions for granting new cable licenses. We require cable companies to serve the entire community; we don’t want to allow providers to pick and choose among our residents. We expect providers to share equitably in the cost of supporting PEG funding, both on the capital equipment and operating sides. And we insist that cable providers compete on a level playing field — that no single company have an unfair advantage over its rivals.

Those are the conditions that Verizon is trying to evade. In 2007, they sought to evade them by creating a permanent, one-size-fits-all, statewide license that just happened to get rid of these pesky requirements. That effort failed. Now they’ve returned with legislation that has the license stay at the local level but takes all the bargaining power away from the communities. If this bill passes, it won’t matter what cities and towns try to negotiate on behalf of their schools, their libraries, and their public access channels. If Verizon doesn’t like the terms, they will just stall until the 90-day limit is reached and then impose their own deal.

Now, FiOS is supposed to be a really impressive technology. Friends who live in towns that have FiOS tell me it’s got impressive speed and clarity. (None of those friends live in Boston or Cambridge; like Somerville, those cities can’t seem to interest Verizon in submitting a proposal.) I honestly hope that FiOS becomes available throughout the state. I would be delighted to see Verizon show some interest in Somerville. How can Verizon know at this point that we would drive too hard a bargain or take too long to come to terms? They haven’t even tried us.

But if the price for FiOS is giving up the ability of local communities to negotiate cable licenses, then I, and Somerville, will take a pass. I oppose this unnecessary and self-serving legislation. And, as chairman of the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s Telecommunications Taskforce, I can confirm that the MMA will oppose this bill as well.

Joseph Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville.