BEVERLY — Like neighboring Salem and Peabody, Beverly is one of 193 communities in the state with only one cable provider.
But when the Beverly City Council was asked to take a stand Monday night on legislation that proponents say would increase competition, councilors unanimously voted against it.
The council's 9-0 vote against Senate bill 1687 highlights the complicated nature of the cable TV approval process and the role of local government. Hearings on the legislation are scheduled to begin this morning before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, which is chaired by Rep. John Keenan of Salem.
Verizon, which has proposed the bill, says the legislation would increase competition by limiting the amount of time communities can negotiate contracts with cable companies.
Cable companies are required by law to pay communities for their local access television in exchange for using the public rights of way to lay their cables. The companies are also allowed to pass on the entire cost of local access to subscribers through a "franchise fee" on their monthly bills.
The exact amount is subject to negotiations between the community and the cable company. Verizon spokesman Phil Santoro said negotiations can now drag on for years, making it costly and time-consuming for a new company to move into a community. The proposed bill would require communities to negotiate a deal within 90 days.
"It would certainly reduce the amount of time it takes to bring new competition into the marketplace," Santoro said.
The bill also calls for cable companies to share the cost of funding local access television when a community has more than one cable provider. Because cable companies pass on that cost to subscribers, Santoro said sharing those costs would lower their monthly bills.
As the law stands now, Santoro said, when more than one cable provider comes into a community, each provider is expected to match the amount of money the existing provider is paying for local access.
"They get double or triple the income, and consumers have to pay for that," he said.
Walt Kosmowski, executive director of BevCam, Beverly's local access station, went before the City Council on Monday to urge councilors to vote for a resolution opposing the Verizon legislation.
Kosmowski told councilors that limiting the negotiating period with cable companies would hamper efforts to meet communities' local access needs. He said Verizon has already signed agreements with 110 communities in Massachusetts under the current rules.
"(The legislation) will not make them come into Beverly sooner," Kosmowski said.
Kosmowski did not mention to councilors the part of the legislation that Verizon says will save subscribers money by limiting the budget of local access stations.
Beverly currently receives $185,000 per year from Comcast for local access, which is paid for by a $1.41 monthly fee on subscribers' bills. Under a new 10-year contract that the city and Comcast are set to reach, Beverly's local access budget could rise to $400,000 per year, with subscribers paying as much as $3 per month.
Under the current rules, a new provider coming into the city would be expected to pay a similar amount, Santoro said.
Beverly City Council President Mike Cahill said he voted to oppose the Verizon bill because he doesn't think it would bring competition to Beverly any faster.
"People see the commercials for FiOS (Verizon's cable package) and they want options, and I want options," Cahill said. "We all sense that competition will give us a better deal, but I don't believe this legislation is something that's going to create that dynamic for (Verizon)."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.