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Franchise Changes Afoot in Wash., Ga.

State-level cable franchising reform is heating up again, with Qwest Communications International jumping into the fray in Washington.

A bill eliminating city-by-city franchising is also making its way through the Georgia General Assembly, while one pending in Oklahoma would preserve and extend local government authority over video providers. It specifies that franchising applies to Internet Protocol television, thus snagging any AT&T U-verse deployments in the regulatory web.

The Washington proposal would move franchising authority to the state Utilities and Transportation Commission. New applicants would have to be vetted and approved within 30 calendar days. Buildout requirements are banned and incumbents would be held to their current agreements. As in other states, incumbents are accusing the potential newcomer of crafting a bill which will allow it to serve only the most affluent communities.

“That's completely bogus and Comcast knows it,” said Shasha Richardson, community-relations manager for Qwest in Washington, referring to the state's dominant incumbent. “We think customers want choice. They're tired of rates going up. This bill will facilitate that competition.”

The Broadband Communications Association of Washington has argued that cable regulation has been in place for 40 years, guaranteeing quality service for all neighborhoods.

“That's the way it should be — the same rules for any company that wants to compete,” said BCAW executive director Ron Main.

Oklahoma legislators have taken a different tack. AT&T Inc. has staunchly argued that its IP-delivered video service does not meet the federal definition of a cable service, but is more like on-demand TV. Therefore, the company has rejected local franchising attempts, even taking governments in Illinois and California to court to challenge pending regulation.

The Oklahoma bill, HB1480, introduced last week, specifies that local cable franchising authority applies specifically to IPTV. A community could not welcome in a new provider and let it operate on terms that are more or less favorable that the rules applied to an incumbent.

Meanwhile, a reform bill proceeding in Georgia would give franchising authority to the secretary of state's office.

The Georgia bill would enable incumbent cable operators opt into state franchising, but those providers would have to continue to honor their local public, educational and government channel carriage and support requirements through the length of current agreements.