Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) introduced the Cable Television Franchise Act of 1979 on Jan. 11, 1979, but her involvement with it dates back to 1977 when she cosponsored a version of the bill with Nadine Winter. During that session, the bill was revised with comments solicited from the Federal Communications Commission and from public hearings held in 1978.
After Rolark introduced the latest version in January 1979, the bill was referred to the Public Services and Consumer Affairs Committee, which Rolark chaired. She held another set of hearings on March 25, 1980. The bill remained in committee for the remainder of the council session, which ended on Dec. 9, but Rolark said she plans to reintroduce the bill with only minor changes.
The bill grants the District of Columbia the right to "grant franchises for the construction and operation of cable television systems," and creates an Office of Telecommunications within the Public Service Commission to oversee the cable system, including fee hikes.
Highlights of the bill include:
Provisions encouraging minority ownership and requiring some form of assistance for access channel users (those renting air time), an equal employment opportunity clause and a clause that gurantees that all sections of the city, including the poorest, will be wired.
Provisions providing free service outlets for fire stations, public school buildings, police stations, libraries and other city-run buildings, and reduced rates for "public benefit corporations."
A five-year limit on construction time for the franchise territory.
Provisions requiring the Public Service Commission to review applications and to rank them for the council before a franchise is awarded.
Items awaiting resolution in the committee or the council include: a decision on whether to award exclusive or non-exclusive franchises; that is, whether to allow more than one company to wire a given area or whether to award one franchise for the whole city or to divide the city into franchise districts. Supporters of multiple franchises say dividing the city into smaller territories would facilitate minority ownership; supporters of single franchises cite the benefits to subscribers arising out of discounts available to the franchise for large-scale construction.
Sources close to council member Rolark say that the committee will probably raise the nonrefundable application fee required of each prospective franchisee from $500 to $10,000 to ensure that only serious and financially capable parties apply, and increase the city's annual share of gross receipts from three to five percent. Sources also say that council members familiar with the bill are leaning toward a requirement for multiple, nonexclusive franchises, in an effort to guarantee minority participation as well as wiring of the entire city, and a tougher disclosure law.