California cable TV franchise renewals still behind closed doors

25 August 2014 by Steve Blum
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Double secret probation.

A bare sliver of light will shine on cable (and telephone) companies when they renew statewide video franchises every 10 years. The California Public Utilities Commission is considering a process that effectively shuts out meaningful public scrutiny of cable companies when they file for renewal. The CPUC’s reasoning is that in writing California’s Digital Information and Video Competition Act, usually referred to as DIVCA, the legislature set a very low bar for granting and, consequently, renewing the statewide video franchises that replaced the original city-by-city and county-by-county process in 2006.

The latest draft of the new renewal rules would allow the commission’s office of ratepayer advocates (ORA) to confidentially review applications and offer comments on whether or not the paperwork is complete. Up to a point, that means there will be a semi-independent review of the claims cable companies make regarding how well they’ve met their obligations to, among other things, build out to homes in their footprint and follow local laws regarding use of the public right of way.

But that review won’t necessarily lead to action. If an application is incomplete, a do-over process kicks in. ORA will be able to make substantive comments about how well cable companies have met their obligations, “which the Commission will not consider as part of the franchise renewal process but may lead to further action outside the renewal process”. In other words, if ORA says a cable company hasn’t met its legal obligations, the commission will grant the renewal anyway and think about it later.

Only ORA can get involved in video franchise review, and that’s because DIVCA specifically grants it “authority to advocate on behalf of video subscribers regarding renewal of a state-issued franchise”. Local governments, other advocacy groups and members of the public are shut out by the law, at least as it’s currently being interpreted.

The CPUC is scheduled to vote on the new rules on Thursday, but it’s been on the agenda several times before and bumped for further review, so changes are still possible.