NASHVILLE — The House voted 93-2 Monday for legislation that would let AT&T begin competing with cable companies to provide television services across Tennessee.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, said the “landmark” bill “establishes a state video franchise process for all providers, enhancing real cable TV competition and choice for consumers, sparking broadband deployment, investment and jobs.”
The bill lets AT&T bypass hundreds of local governments which, over the years, have struck their own franchise agreements with cable companies.
The bill, which creates a state franchising process to be overseen by the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, is poised to go to the Senate floor.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, a co-sponsor, said the bill was debated and worked on extensively last year before it stalled amid fighting, with AT&T facing off against the cable industry and local governments, who opposed changes.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to help all the citizens of the state of Tennessee,” Rep. McCormick said.
AT&T and cable interests spent as much as $11 million last year on lobbying and television advertising. This year, House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, waded in and forced AT&T, the cable industry and local governments to reach a compromise in closed-door meetings.
After 14 weeks of those meetings, there was enough of a consensus that “legislators could fill in the blanks in areas” where there was no agreement, Rep. McDaniel said.
On Monday, House members asked few questions and spent much of their time congratulating each other and Speaker Naifeh.
Rep. Curt Cobb, D-Shelbyville, asked for and received assurances that a compromise had been reached on pole attachments belonging to rural electric cooperatives.
Commerce Committee Chairman Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, said the bill requires state franchisees to make television services available in 30 percent of their service area within 3 1/2 years, although they can receive credit for that by offering broadband Internet services in unserved or underserved rural areas.
The bill also includes a so-called “build-out” requirement that keeps companies from “cherry-picking” customers by choosing wealthier neighborhoods over low-income neighborhoods.
Last year, AT&T officials and sponsors asserted again and again that competition would bring Tennesseans lower cable prices. But this year, they have avoided such claims.
As member after member got up to praise the compromise legislation, Rep. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said “hopefully this bill will, as well, keep prices from rising.” He quickly amended that to say it would “hopefully keep prices from rising very fast.”
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...