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There was a time that local governments could control cable service, right down to deciding what channels could be offered. Many of the big city cable systems built in the '70s and early '80s fell under those rules. At those times, anyone who could meet the requirements, such as providing a bond and meeting health and safety codes, could install cable -- but why would they if they couldn't offer any services to residential customers? No source of income. No reason to put in the cable.

The reason why the Federal government allowed local governments to grant exclusive franchises to offer the service (not the same as an exclusive right to the right-of-way) is that it was believed that no one would invest in building a system if they immediately would/could face competition. In most cities, 1 in 10 houses passed subscribing to basic cable was an accomplishment, and it was only future expansion that would eventually pay for it all.

Eventually, the right to regulate cable was largely taken away from local governments. Local governments can still set the price for the most basic cable: Local broadcast stations and local access stations. And they can regulate the health and safety issues of right-of-way access. But they can't grant exclusive access to the right-of-way, nor can they regulate any cable service beyond basic cable. (You will, however, find that cable companies will work to cooperate with the local cable authority on complaints out of their jurisdiction because such voluntary cooperation goes a long way when the regulating authority wants to start dealing with the things they do have control over.) But essentially, as far as cable TV goes, anything beyond basic cable is private business.

Basic telephone service is mostly regulated by the FCC and state utility commissions, and not local authorities. But again, they only regulate the most basic service. Anything beyond that is beyond their jurisdiction. Local governments only have authority over the public health and safety issues regarding the use of the public right of way.

And believe it or not, there are some areas where local phone companies compete. I know of one co-op telephone company that has been inching into a territory served by a baby-Bell company as new subdivisions are built. This same co-op tried to propose a merger with another nearby co-op, but when that co-op said they weren't interested, the first co-op developed a plan to invade that territory, too. The baby-Bell is annoyed at having competition on the fringes of their territory, but it's not going to put them out of business. The second co-op is very worried because there isn't enough potential revenue to support two phone networks as the area involved is a mix of rural and light suburban. A densely populated urban area might be able to support two local phone companies, but in most of those cases, the second local phone company used Federal regulations to gain access to the first local phone company's cables. They didn't over-build a whole network.

So why can the Federal government demand local phone companies grant access to their physical network, but the same can't be done in the case of cable companies? Well, it's because phone service is considered a public utility. Access to the telephone network is now considered a necessity. Access to watch ESPN and HGTV is not. And frankly, I don't expect that access to television programming will ever be considered a necessity. Access to the Internet may some day be considered a necessity, but since that's already provided in most areas by the local phone company by providing lines clean enough to use a dial-up modem, I wouldn't expect it to be used as a back-door to further regulate cable TV companies because they happen to offer premium access to the Internet.

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Warren -

Thank you very much for the explanation. We have neighbors and friends who were just as puzzled as we were - - so, now we can give them an answer! We're being besieged by both Verizon and Comcast, as they have the "rights" in our city - - and sometimes it's difficult to separate the bull from the facts.

Thanks again


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