One of the most frustrating experiences everyone shares in Sarasota is the relationship they have with their cable and internet provider. For several thousand dollars a year, you can get hundreds of program and still have nothing to watch, constant buffering, slow downloads and lousy customer service. The only option for consumers is to switch back and forth between the two companies, Verizon and Comcast, in order to get anyone to pay attention to you.
In 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law the “Consumer Choice Act (HC 529)” that promised it “would quickly empower consumers with more choices as video service providers would be able to file just one application to offer their service throughout each state. The increased competition will undoubtedly produce reduced rates and better service for consumers.” In addition, “Under the new law, municipalities no longer possess authority to negotiate or grant cable television franchises or to charge franchise fees as a precondition to obtaining a cable television franchise. Instead, effective July 1, 2007, a prospective provider of cable or video services must apply to Florida’s Department of State (“DOS”) for a state-issued certificate of franchise authority in order to provide service in the state.”
Even the U.S. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Barnett, penned a letter to House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt that stated “Municipalities have legitimate interests in preserving the integrity of public rights of way. However, this interest generally does not justify regulations that impede competition in the provision of video programming or broadband services.”
The legislation was sold to the people as a “pro-competition, pro-consumer bill.” Well here we are, seven years later, and I would like to ask, “What happened? Where is all of the competition?” We were told that the flood gates would open and the free market would present a new day in the cable/internet industry for our state. Looking back, it seems that the state forgot to turn on the “Open for Business” sign.
A place that we should look to is Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 2008, the city had a goal of building a “smart” power grid for the city, capable of rerouting electricity on the fly to prevent outages in addition to carrying Internet traffic. With the help of a $111-million stimulus grant from the Department of Energy in 2009, officials installed a fiber-optic network that is run by a city-owned agency, the Electric Power Board. It offers a higher-speed service than any of its private-sector competitors can manage with up to 1,000 megabits per second, or 1 gigabit, for just $70 a month. A cheaper 100-megabit plan costs $58 per month.
That was around the same time Sarasota County was in negotiations with FPL for a 30-year franchise agreement, soon to be followed by the highly contested FPL negotiations with the City of Sarasota. And what is now looking like an incredible short-sightedness of our elected officials, the taxpayers will have to wait at least 25 more years to follow in Chattanooga’s footsteps.
The Federal Communications Commission is now looking at the repeal of state and local laws, that are supported by the cable industry, that make it harder for cities to set up their own networks. Judging by the lack of motivation for competition, I think the potential of municipality-run broadband is the thing that will move the needle and put the power back in the hands of the people.
SRQ Daily Columnist Susan Nilon is the president of Florida Talk Radio and owner of WSRQ Radio. She hosts “The Nilon Report” on WSRQ Sarasota 1220AM/106.9FM weekdays 4pm-6pm