New law could cloud Pen-TV’s future

SAN CARLOS — The county’s local cable access network was still scrambling Tuesday to determine how it could be affected by a newly- signed law designed to open up cable television markets in the state.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Sunday signed Assembly Bill 2987 by Assemblyman Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, known as The Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006, despite the opposition of cities up and down the Peninsula and throughout California.

The bill shifts the power to negotiate franchise agreements with cable video providers to the California Public Utilities Commission and away from local governments.

Officials with the county Telecommunications Authority said the bill — which will take effect in January — could gut consumer protections, eliminate complimentary video and Internet service relied on by cities, counties, schools and libraries and halt the ability of local agencies to preempt service during a local emergency.

In his signing message, however, Schwarzenegger said the bill would make video television service cheaper for Californians by allowing more companies into the market. “Increased competition will translate into better service and lower prices for everyone.”

Phone companies such as AT&T and Verizon, who hope to start delivering video services that will compete with cable providers, were the major proponents of the bill. They had argued that the need to negotiate individual agreements with each city was too great a competitive barrier to entering the market.

“It was unsurprising that he signed it because his staff had indicated that the governor was pro-business on this issue and that the competitive forces should outweigh considerations of local government control,” said Steve Toler, who oversees information technology and the budget for Foster City. Toler also sits on the San Mateo County Telecommunications Authority board, a joint powers authority comprised of 18 cities and the county that advises cities on telecommunication issues.

Bob Marks, director of the county’s cable access channel Pen-TV 26, said he is most concerned with the possibility of having to renegotiate the network’s 15 year agreement with Comcast and possibly pay for upkeep on 86 mini-studios, called I-NET, currently being installed throughout the county for live broadcast being installed.

“We’re very concerned about the long-term cost of the I-NET,” Marks said. “We don’t want them to build the infrastructure and then start charging us exorbitant fees so that we can’t use it.”

Toler and others said local agencies and Pen-TV won’t learn exactly how the new law will affect them until the state Public Utilities Commission issues guidelines. Even then, he expects “clean up” legislation to be proposed in 2007 to clarify portions of the bill.

ecarpenter@examiner.com

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