Ketron foresees lower cable bills

Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Photo by Clint Confehr Marshall County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett, left, confers with State Sen. Bill Ketron, right, in the Lewisburg Recreation Center.

Competition for cable TV customers lowered rates elsewhere and Marshall County's state senator is sponsoring legislation to create statewide franchising for televised programming delivered by wires, he said Friday evening in Lewisburg.

"This bill just passed in Georgia, and in other states we've seen, on average, a reduction of $25 a month," Sen. Bill Ketron said while discussing what's commonly called the AT&T bill to permit the phone company and cable TV services to bypass local franchising and get a statewide permit.

Asked if he believes the bill he's sponsoring in the Senate will lead to lower cable TV rates, the Murfreesboro Republican replied, "Absolutely."

As for the prospect of his bill becoming law, Ketron said, "We don't have a majority already, but we have a majority who are of an open mind."

With digital technology it's possible to receive programs on a TV that's connected to an ordinary telephone wire, Ketron said. It also makes possible so-called a la carte programming in which a subscriber could select the channels they want.

Ketron's bill has faced opposition from the Tennessee Municipal League which represents towns and cities that have, for decades, been in charge of licensing cable TV services through a business permit called a franchise. Cable companies found that system cumbersome as small, independent systems that had been started in town after town were acquired by larger systems that consolidated their holdings.

As various small systems were purchased, the new owners raised rates when they could as allowed by federal law, but the rate hikes were allegedly used to pay for the acquisitions, according to officials in Murfreesboro during the 1990s when that city audited the cable TV service.

"I think the average cable bill is about $60 a month," Ketron said in an interview at the Lewisburg Recreation Center before a political party dinner.

When small, independent cable TV companies sought a franchise to conduct business, including use of public rights of way and frequently publicly-owned utility poles, city councils were offered channels for their own use, or for educational programming by the local school system. Before Murfreesboro started its own government channel to televise city council meetings like Congress is aired on C-SPAN, that municipality permitted the local low-power TV station to use the city's channel in exchange for a tape-delayed telecast of council meetings.

This week, Ketron anticipated state lawmakers would address the so-called PEG Channels, named for public, education and government programming.

"Our amendment will equalize the current agreements that the communities have across the state," Ketron said. "Therefore, AT&T would provide another PEG channel."

The "bottom line" for Ketron is to provide consumers with a choice -- another option on how to receive programs for their TVs, he said. Options have been limited because adding another set of wires to utility poles is expensive, although with modern technology, one set of wires that's been in place can now be used for several purposes.

"One reason I chose to carry the bill is because competition will allow us the ability to bring broadband to the rural areas," he said.

Competition over the bill now being considered in the state legislature has prompted an advertising campaign. Some of the campaign's messages are "incorrect," Ketron said. It's alleged that if Tennessee allows statewide franchising of cable TV services, then cable company leaders will be "cherry picking," or providing their service only in the most lucrative markets.

Televised ads on this issue "are showing an expensive house versus a small house," the senator said. However, the nature of the telephone system when digital technology is applied will lead to more, and not less availability of TV programming.

"AT&T has switching stations and the signals go there by fiber optic lines," he said. From those switching stations, the digital signals carrying TV programs can be transmitted to a building with telephone service even if it's served by an old twisted pair of copper wires.