Commentary by Steve Effros TRUTH IN ADVERTISING You may not have seen the ads if you are not in the Washington, DC market, but around here they are hard to miss. The telephone companies and one of their trade associations have launched a somewhat strange, all-out advertising blitz on "TV Freedom." The basic message of these ads is that these wonderful, red-blooded, competition-loving ‘mericans are just ready, waiting and anxious to jump in to the video business and finally give folks the benefits of true, price-busting competition in cable TV, which up to now has been totally dominated by those (they don’t say this, but I will…) commie monopolist cable guys, as soon as Congress acts! What’s this "…as soon as Congress acts" thing? Why does Congress have to act at all for those wonderful protectors of competition and the American way to start rolling out their competitive systems? Well, they never tell you that in the ad. It’s just this very clear message that for all these great things to happen for the American consumer, Congress has to do something first. What do they want Congress to do? Well, gut the laws of the last 50 or so years, of course, and run roughshod over states and localities. Yup, a good ‘merican fix by a bunch of folks who are used to having the government give them what they want. You see, the cable industry played by the rules. We went into every community and got franchises to build our systems on their streets and ways. We guaranteed that we would serve all the folks in the community, not just the rich ones. And we sat down in each community and negotiated what we would and wouldn’t do. That’s just too much trouble for the telephone gang. They complain that these pesky laws, rules, regulations and ordinances at the local level may slow down their newfound drive to provide competition to cable. Their solution? Get Uncle Sam to sweep away all those pesky rules so they can do what they want, where they want. Translation: the telephone companies, which could get a franchise in any community they want today (and they’re doing that, too, with very little trouble), want to cut a special deal that allows them to "cherry pick." They don’t want to have to serve everywhere, only the places they are pretty sure they can milk. Even then, they want agreements that let them bail out after three years if they’re not getting enough! Now the local folks, while they are still granting virtually every franchise sought by the telcos, are a little cautious of this "no build-out" stuff. They know their communities. They know what it’s like when someone comes in and only wants to serve the "good" part of town. They don’t think that serves everyone, and they’re right. So the telcos don’t really want to deal with local and state officials if they can avoid it. Better to deal with their "friends" on Capitol Hill and argue that this way they will "streamline" competitive entry. "Redline" is more like it. Let’s make sure that everyone really understands what this "…as soon as Congress acts" stuff is all about. It’s not about faster entry into competitive business. The telcos already have committed all the capital expenditures planned for the next year in terms of cable construction. They have plenty of time to follow the rules, like cable did, and assure local service to everyone. Let’s have some truth in advertising.

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