Hold That 'Sweetheart' Verizon Cable Franchise, Advocates Warn
A coalition of non-profits and elected officials are banding together in an effort to delay the vote that would award Verizon a new cable franchise for the five boroughs. Though they welcome the competition Verizon would bring with its FiOS to a cable market dominated by Time Warner and Cablevision, they worry that weaker consumer protections in the Verizon deal will eventually hurt consumers of all cable companies.
“The basic idea is good, but the details are important,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York and a leader in the push to delay Verizon’s vote before the City’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee, scheduled for May 27. Should the deal be approved, Verizon would be granted a 12-year franchise, allowing them to access City cable customers using the City’s right-of-way, and would pay five percent cut of gross revenue for the privilege.
Lerner’s coalition, which includes the People’s Production House and a variety of elected officials, is demanding that the City hold off on its vote until mid-September to allow for greater public comment on the FiOS deal. The commission did hold a hearing yesterday on the franchise agreement in Brooklyn, which Lerner argued was poorly publicized. Another public hearing will be held in Manhattan next week, prior to the franchise vote. “There’s no time for anybody to really look at it,” said Lerner, who added that the secretive negotiations surrounded the deal between Mayor Bloomberg’s office and Verizon make it seem as if the franchise is being “railroaded through.”
“It does seem like this is a sweetheart deal being rammed through,” she said.
Critics argue that Verizon should make government and educational programming available through its “on demand” service, that Verizon needs to commit more than a proposed $4 million to its Technology and Education Fund, and that low-income communities need to be guaranteed the same service as their higher-income counterparts.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Verizon rep Paul Trane said that there would be no discrimination in service access, and that workers have begun building the FiOS infrastructure.
Lerner said that the City should be demanding a seven percent cut of revenue rather than five percent, and that various consumer protections for poor service or missed installations are weakened in the Verizon agreement. Not only is this necessary to keep Verizon honest, said Lerner, but to keep Time Warner and Cablevision from demanding the same deal when their own contracts come up for renewal later this year.
“You know that as soon as the other providers have their contracts up later this year they’re going to fight and say they want the same thing,” said Lerner. “We’re leveling the playing field down, not up, at a time when more people want to get into the market.”