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Cable hearing 

CABLE TELEVISION is morphing into a part of broadband Internet service. In the process, it's throwing off the shell of consumer protections. A little competition might pressure Time Warner to lower its astronomical cable rates. But what will we give up for the promise of competition?

This week, the state legislature will consider a bill that would radically alter the terms under which cable television can be provided using public land and rights of way, eventually costing local governments millions in the form of lost taxes.

The Revenue Laws Study Committee meets April 19 to consider a bill designed to "promote consumer choice in cable television providers and to establish uniform taxes for video programming services." The idea is to allow telecom companies--namely Bell South and Verizon--to offer video service without having to deal with the regulations that currently govern cable television. And in fairness, that would mean an end to the regulations for everyone.

For consumers, there's a lot more at stake. Right now, each city or county has authority over the cable system there, so if you've got a dispute, you can call someone local. Under the proposed bill, you'd have to call the N.C. Attorney General for help.

Right now, local governments collect taxes from the cable companies in return for allowing them to run their lines on public property, and those taxes pay both for local public access stations and for basic things like the fire department. Under the bill, the state collects the money. The telecom companies say that will save consumers from having to pay small monthly fees they tack on to your bill--but where else will the money come from?

As for public access, educational or government channels, only one is required. A second channel will open up to the public only if it provides at least eight hours of non-repeated programming a day.

"We would have to produce more programming than our Fox affiliate" in order to stay on the air, says Chad Johnston of The People's Channel in Chapel Hill, "and we wouldn't have any funding." And not every neighborhood would necessarily benefit from the much-touted competition. "It would let a phone company build out just to what AT&T calls 'high value neighborhoods,' which will just further the digital divide," says Johnston.


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