Battle brewing as AT&T looks to move into video services market in Tenn.

Hank Hayes • Nov 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Another clash of the telecommunications titans — with AT&T facing off against members of the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association (TCTA) — appears to be headed toward the Tennessee General Assembly next year.

Both sides are working to increase or protect their market share in a state that earlier this year ranked 37th in the United States in broadband availability.

At issue is AT&T’s efforts to pass legislation to allow the technology giant to obtain a statewide video services franchise. Such a bill failed to get out of Senate and House commerce committees in the last legislative session because AT&T ultimately pulled the plug on it, said state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, a House Commerce Committee member.

“It took away local control, and that was very important,” Lundberg said of one reason why the bill couldn’t get the support of lawmakers.

Still, TCTA Executive Director Stacey Briggs was on the road in Northeast Tennessee recently talking to association members and getting ready for another legislative battle.

“We know AT&T plans to come back (with another bill),” she said. “They’re out meeting people. ... We decided after the last session that we need to do a better job of getting out more into the state and visiting.”

Charter Communications is a TCTA member, as is Comcast. The association represents 1.2 million subscribers in the state, said Briggs.

Those video services franchises traditionally have been issued by localities, and the Tennessee Municipal League has sided with TCTA against AT&T.

“What they (AT&T) want to do is pick their customers,” Briggs said. “They do not want to have to build to (give services to) every neighborhood. They don’t want that requirement. That is negotiated at the local level. ... That’s the reason they keep coming back.

“I think it is more of a corporate goal to get this (statewide franchise bill) passed, but it is certainly not in the consumer’s best interest.”

Dueling Web sites spin the positions staked out by both sides. TCTA’s is at www.tcta.net. AT&T’s is at www.wewantchoice.com.

While AT&T and TCTA continue engaging consumers and lawmakers, Tennessee appears to be moving slowing toward closing a digital divide between technology haves and have-nots.

A first portion of a survey examining technology use among Tennessee residents found that, on average, 43 percent of Tennesseans have a broadband connection in their home. But only 19 of the state’s 95 counties currently meet or surpass that average.

The survey, done by the public-private “Connected Tennessee” partnership, suggested that rural areas of the state tend to fall dramatically short of the state average of broadband adoption, with only 27 percent of residents having a high-speed Internet connection. Rural lawmakers have compared expanding broadband availability in their areas to the impact electricity had in the last century.

A second part of the survey also showed that businesses with a high-speed connection, and selling goods or services online, have higher revenues than other businesses not using those technologies.

Connected Tennessee has been charged with developing a statewide plan to expand broadband availability and use to underserved areas. It is modeled after a similar program in Kentucky that raised broadband availability in that state by 90 percent.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), meanwhile, has been taking actions to establish what it calls “regulatory parity” in the marketplace. Last month, the FCC found that it cannot preempt local or state cable customer requirements, nor can it prevent local franchising authorities and cable operators from agreeing to more stringent standards.

Lundberg said lawmakers are hopeful another bill to stimulate competition will come forward next year but noted the fierce lobbying between AT&T and TCTA will go on.

“It’s interesting on the (public relations) side to watch the two sides come after each other,” Lundberg said. “Someone jokingly referred to it as the ‘Lobbyist Employment Act.’”

For more about Connected Tennessee go to www.connectedtennessee.org.

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