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May 2007

Is TV4US Good for Wisconsin?

“You have no doubt seen the “TV4US” commercials on your local television station arguing for state legislation to promote cable competition and bring lower prices and better service. On the surface, who could argue with legislation that would make the cable industry more accountable to consumers? I know that during my time at Trade & Consumer Protection, we spent more time investigating Charter Communications for consumer protection violations than almost any other company.

Senator Jeff Plale (D–South Milwaukee) and Representative Phil Montgomery (R–Ashwaubenon) have introduced bills—Senate Bill 107 and Assembly Bill 207—that would allow Wisconsin to join the 11 states that have adopted what’s known as the Video Competition Act. The measures would facilitate competition by allowing other companies to provide new video technology services to consumers, regardless of the exclusive local cable franchise agreements certain companies such as Charter might have with local governments. Overall, I believe the bill’s proposed state law changes could enhance competition, which would then lead to lower prices and better consumer service.

However, at the April 5 state telephone cooperative meeting, Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection Secretary Rod Nilsestuen criticized parts of the legislation that he said would remove existing protections in Wisconsin law known as “cable television subscriber rights.” Nilsestuen’s comments were echoed by Trade & Consumer Protection Administrator Janet Jenkins’ testimony at a March 27, 2007, hearing on the bill. Both Nilsestuen and Jenkins argue that the bill would eliminate a consumer’s right to: (1) have service repaired within 72 hours of notification if service was lost to something other than a natural disaster, (2) obtain a billing credit if there is an interruption in service more than four hours long, and (3) receive at least 30 days’ prior notice of a rate increase or deletion of current programming.

A final comment on what should otherwise be a good bill: The TV4US campaign is available online at www.wewantchoicewi.com. The web site states, “TV4US is a non-profit, grassroots coalition advocating on behalf of customers.” Common Cause, a national consumer advocacy group, notes, “TV4US is the very definition of Astroturf: an industry-backed campaign that gives the appearance of widespread grassroots support.” Common Cause cites AT&T as the organization’s primary financial backer.

Consumers usually benefit from competition but not when important consumer protections are eliminated. Fortunately, legislators appear to be hearing this message and have said they will put the eliminated consumer protections back into the bill. You can help make sure this happens by contacting your legislator on the toll-free Legislative Hotline at 1-800-362-9472. You can find your legislator by going to http://waml.legis.state.wi.us/ and find a copy of the bill at the same site.

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