Philadelphia Inquirer

Competition Not A Benefit To All

The Philadelphia Inquirer — Sunday, May 28, 2006

By Monica Yant Kinney
Inquirer Columnist

It's rarely a good sign when supposedly consumer-friendly legislation draws the wrath of consumer groups.

It usually means the little guy may not be getting such a great deal, after all. And that somewhere along the way, a big company flexed big muscle.

So about all those commercials promising that cable choice and lower rates are just around the corner?

It depends on where you live.

And even people who don't get the opportunity to pay less with Verizon will pay more in the franchise tax.

"There is some truth that some consumers will benefit from cable competition," says Abigail Caplovitz of New Jersey Public Interest Research Group. "But we don't think it's consumer-friendly to all consumers."

Groups such as NJPIRG, New Jersey Citizen Action, and the AARP worry that the legislation gives both old-guard cable companies like Comcast and newcomer Verizon too much power to pick and choose whom to serve.

The bill lets phone companies into the game statewide, rather than making them seek approval town by town, as their predecessors did.

In exchange, the legislation gives cable companies the right to abandon or change existing municipal contracts at will.

Rich folks willing to pay for more services in densely populated North Jersey communities are ideal customers.

Less affluent people in rural South Jersey? Who knows?

Channel surfing

Given Comcast's monopoly, Verizon's quest to compete gave many reason to cheer.

The cable company and telephone giant spent the last year fighting its own Battle of Trenton. The war grew so costly and contentious that former Gov. Dick Codey dubbed it the "full employment for lobbyists" bill.

Codey nonetheless supported the bill, as did much of the Legislature.

For once, Sens. Steve Sweeney and Fred Madden – part of the powerful South Jersey Democratic machine – found themselves in the minority.

Madden is livid that, at the same time politicians are advocating farmland preservation, they're supporting a bill that penalizes small, spread-out communities.

Not one town in his district meets the 7,411-population-per-square-mile requirement that will guarantee Verizon's arrival.

"We're marching along protecting open space down here, and then we have a bill like this," Madden complains. "Where's the fairness?"

Sweeney says he's thrilled he'll eventually get Verizon's 190 channels for a $39.95 deal at his house in Deptford.

But what should he tell constituents in Paulsboro who won't be so lucky?

I suggest he build an addition and invite them to watch Eagles games at his place, but then he'd spend his cable savings on chips and salsa.

Sweeney said he was supposed to be one of the cable choice bill's sponsors. Then, one day, he read that Joe Doria, from Jersey City, introduced it.

"They told me, 'You didn't have any towns,' " Sweeney recalled.

And here he thought he was in the State Legislature.

"Real competition and real choice is when everyone gets it," he says. This, he calls "cherry-picking."

Relief is on the way

Rich Young, Verizon's spokesman, doesn't understand all the fuss.

He tells me the phone company has already wired 147 towns - only 11 of which met the density requirement.

"We're not looking to only go to the vast population centers," Young insists. "That's not the case."

He can't say which towns in South Jersey will see their cable rates plummet or exactly when, just that 15 are in Camden County and "numerous others" in Burlington County.

Young says nothing about Gloucester, Cumberland, Atlantic or Salem Counties, just that "we cannot do the whole state overnight."

For all the excitement over cable choice, it is not yet a law.

Gov. Corzine was in East Asia last week on a trade mission. Spokesman Anthony Coley said cable choice sounds great, but made no promises he'd sign on the dotted line.

Based on what Corzine experienced in the U.S. Senate, he likes to read telecom bills very carefully - to make sure everyone's being treated fairly.

Top Top | NJCA Homepage | NJCA in the News