A congressional move to deregulate the country's burgeoning cable industry could seriously disrupt the plans of the District and Fairfax County to bring cable television systems to the area, according to local officials and businessmen.
The legislation, hastily passed by a Senate committee two months ago without public hearings, would effectively strip localities of their power to regulate the rates subscribers pay for cable services, while imposing new limits on the fees local governments can collect from cable companies that receive monopoly franchises.
While the bill would affect hundreds of municipalities and counties around the country that have begun awarding cable franchises, locally it would have serious impact in the District of Columbia where citizen and business groups say efforts to formulate a franchise award procedure are already in disarray and in Fairfax County which is expected to award its first franchise later this year.
Fairfax County Supervisor Audrey Moore said last night the legislation would have a chaotic impact on her jusdiction's move toward awarding a cable tv franchise and would effectively gut its ability to regulate any franchise awarded there. "If we can't control the rates, we can't control anything," she said. "This (bill) is really, really a bad idea."
Fairfax, which is expected to award a franchise later this year, has been the scene of some of the most intense lobbying by cable backers in the area. Alarmed by the prospect the bill poses, the county has begun lobbying against its passage.
D.C. Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark,(D-Ward 8), chairman of the city council's Public Services and Consumer Affairs Committee, said yesterday that she had originally hoped to report out a governing ordinance launching the cable process by the end of this year.
"But now we're going to have to wait and see what comes out from the (Senate) floor," Rolark said yesterday. "This is compounding our legislative timetable and making it much more difficult to meet our goal."
But a variety of city groups that have been formed to bid on a District franchise charged yesterday that, after years of foot-dragging by Rolark's committee, further delay at this point would have far-reaching consequences for city television viewers interested in cable services. One cable executive said yesterday that it could leave Washington as the "last major city in the country without a cable franchise."
In addition, the Senate bill would apparently gut a major proposal of Mayor Marion Barry's cable television task force which calls for a quasi-public corporation to operate a cable system.
Rolark said yesterday she is now disposed toward exploring some form of "alternative" ownership proposal such as that recommended by the task force. Yet the National League of Cities, which has been vigorously lobbying against the Senate bill, has warned that the bill's sweeping language barring local governments from taking any action to "establish, fix, or restrict" cable rates, would effectively bar any form of municipal ownership.
"This is definitely a setback and a disappointment," said Robert Johnson, president of a group called District Cablevision. "Without a basic ordinance passed in 1981, its going to get thrown into 1982, which is an election year. And I can't see how its going to happen then, given all the intense electoral activity and the fact that many of the competing groups are going to be in different political camps."
Noting the several years that experts say will be required for consultants' studies, franchise proposals and actual construction, Johnson said, "We're talking about 1989" before the vast array of "cultural and civic opportunities" offered by cable will be available in the city.
"D.C. can very well be the last major city in the country without a franchise for cable," he added. "I think its a tragedy, especially when you consider that our own poll shows that 63 percent of the people say they want the council to move expeditiously and more than 75 percent of the people say they would like to see cable here."
Johnson's District Cablevision is one of at least two local groups that have recruited politically well-connected District citizens while laying the groundwork for bidding on a city franchise. Johnson's group includes such figures as David Abramson, Barry's 1978 campaign media adviser, and former FCC Commissioner Tyrone Brown.
Another group, called Capital CableVision Inc., is headed by local media adviser Carl Anderson and includes such prominent investors as Barry friend William Fitzgerald, president of Independence Federal Savings and Loan Association; Barry fundraiser Nancy (Bitsy) Folger, and lawyer Nira Long, the city's Redevelopment Land Agency chairman.
Kay Pierson, a spokesman for the D.C. Cable Coalition, which represents a number of citizen activist community groups, said after a meeting in Rolark's office yesterday that her organization is dissatisfied with the council's progress.
"She (Rolark) has held two hearings in two years and there still isn't any timetable or goals," said Pierson. "We feel the whole process is just in disarray."
The Senate cable bill, which is only one portion of a huge deregulation measure affecting the entire telecommunications industry, has also alarmed officials in the suburbs, who have passed resolutions and sent letters urging its defeat by the Senate. But many noted yesterday that they are already far ahead of the District and do not intend to delay their plans to award franchises.
The cable bill has been heavily pushed in the Congress by cable television executives who say they need deregulation to "compete in the marketplace." It is expected to come up on the Senate floor within the next two to three weeks, according to Senate staffers.