For those of us who were in the trenches 15 years ago, it’s starting to feel a lot like 1991 in Washington again, but with a significant difference. The opening shots have been fired in earnest in a battle that’s likely to go on for the next year and lead up to a Telecommunications Act rewrite. The difference: Cable’s leadership is more than willing to shoot back this time. When the telcos say anything in an ad or up on the Hill, cable returns a volley within a day or two. That’s how it has to be. The players are the same, but their roles are a bit different. Last time, the telephone companies wanted to slow cable, so they looked for ways to support provisions that would cost us money and hurt our borrowing power, which was needed to build our digital plants. They found ideal weapons: retransmission consent and rate regulation. Of course retrans was of great interest to the broadcasters, so both camps supported the Corduroy Crew’s effort to slap rate regulation on cable. It worked, but we built our new infrastructure anyway—it was just delayed about five years. Now the telcos are back, and so are the broadcasters. But this time the telephone giants seek special deals, rather than trying to regulate and slow cable or help the television stations. They want a sweetheart deal for national franchising, and they’re going about it the same way they did last time: a massive lobbying and ad campaign using unacknowledged proxies and phony facts and figures. It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that some of the largest companies in the country need government help to compete against cable, but that’s what they’re saying. They said that in ’91, too, and got what they asked for. They just never built the system they’d promised. So here we are again. The huge telcos claiming that they need special government-granted advantages, deals that totally tilt the playing field to their side. They’re using the methods of yesteryear: lots of money and lobbying. Their hope is to intentionally confuse the public and Congress. The good news is this time the cable industry is responding, quickly and effectively. We’re willing to sit at the table and figure out how to draft reasonable, streamlined legislation, which we didn’t do last time. We’re also responding shot for shot. This looks to be a major battle. Thankfully, cable’s gearing up to full strength, and willing to battle back, big time. We all must enlist. This is not a drill. A former FCC attorney and president of CATA, Steve Effros is a columnist and consultant in the cable television industry. He can be reached at steve@effros.com.

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