Why Cable Deregulation Is A Civil Rights Issue

Thursday, March 9, 2006
Guest Opinion: Bells hang up on civil rights
This guest opinion appears online only and not in the Tucson Citizen's print edition.

LILLIAN RODRIGUEZ-LOPEZ

Tucson Citizen

The giant telephone companies want to get into the cable television business in Arizona and elsewhere. But there is a catch.

Rather than play by the rules, they want to end the federal and local anti-discrimination protections that have helped to close the digital divide by making sure competition for the latest broadband and video services comes to Hispanic, African-American and working-class communities.

The 1996 Telecom Act changed the rules to let telephone companies compete with cable companies, but the Bells have refused to enter the market in any meaningful manner.

When you strip away the window dressing, what the phone companies really want is to repeal the anti-discrimination laws that are a central part of the 1984 and 1992 Cable Acts.

The law forbids communications companies that provide TV services from discriminating against certain neighborhoods. It requires such companies to serve every neighborhood, and to do so in a reasonable time frame.

In passing this anti-discrimination provision, a bipartisan Congress recognized the seminal importance that cable television plays in our culture and our economy.

By guarding against redlining and cherry-picking of only the well-to-do communities, the laws sought to ensure that our rich and diverse culture – as expressed through television news and entertainment – would be available to the broadest possible audience of Americans.

The phone companies argue that it takes them too much time to gain franchise agreements from local governments. But one carrier recently obtained a franchise in Fairfax County, Va., in 120 days.

They can do that everywhere if they will just follow the regulations.

Around Washington, D.C., one telephone company plans to build its latest services in affluent suburban communities, but not in the city of Washington or most of Prince George's County – both predominantly African-American communities.

A senior company official recently disparaged the local oversight rules that are intended to protect against discrimination as "Mickey Mouse" rules.

In New Jersey, initial plans for expansion do not seem to include low-income, ethnic or urban neighborhoods. Aren't these communities entitled to the freedom of choice and price as a result of business competition?

If the phone companies get their way, the digital divide may widen.

Many Hispanic and other traditionally underserved communities will lack parity of access to the competitive broadband technologies so critical for educational and professional advancement in today's world.

Here's the simple fact: Nothing is standing in the way of television companies nothing is standing in the way of television companies competing for cable services but the phone companies, which shouldn't be given the legal authority to discriminate. We welcome more competition and more choice, but only if every community can benefit.

Lillian Rodríguez-López is president of the Hispanic Federation.
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