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Before 2005,, four states had passed laws governing cable franchise terms at the state level; since then, 20 more have passed such laws. Source: Miller & Van Eaton n LLC

Modern systems can handle both. But while the technologies overlap, their regulatory classifications do not.

“Some of this is at issue in the Sixth Circuit appeal: The FCC tends to try to confine cable franchising to a smaller subset of matters than the statute does,” Ellrod says. “The legal tension over these issues, sparked by the technological convergence, is likely to continue for some years to come.”

In the meantime, Ellrod recommends educating state legislators about the laws' effectiveness, and to make sure providers satisfy all legal requirements.

A National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors survey shows that rates haven't fallen among 139 local franchising authorities representing 10 million cable subscribers in 14 states that have adopted legislation.

One-third of respondents reported that existing providers abandoned local agreements in favor of state law. One-quarter said that at least one new provider had entered the market, but since most don't report rates it's difficult for customers to compare rates to those of existing providers. Meanwhile, the number of consumer complaints remains constant.

The results indicate that the laws improve neither cable rates nor service.

Review state law to see what rights your community has and that they're enforced. While cable companies must provide PEG channels, the quality sometimes isn't the same as the rest of the provider's channels. State or federal law may require companies to provide the same, or similar-quality, PEG channels.

Similarly, if the community has settled a dispute with a provider, read the settlement documents carefully. If the provider signed a separate contract agreeing to certain terms as a remedy for past performance problems, a state law that focuses exclusively on obligations in the franchise agreement may not apply.

If an existing agreement is coming up for renewal, check the state law to see whether the provider can “opt out” into a state franchise at that point. Even if it can, it may be willing to negotiate a local agreement that benefits both parties.

For more information, the Right-of-Way Management Subcommittee of the American Public Works Association's (www.apwa.net) Utilities and Public Right-of-Way Technical Committee wrote an excellent analysis of state-by-state developments: “State Video Franchise Law: State of Art or State of War?” dated Aug. 19, 2008.