Broadband Census District of Columbia
WASHINGTON, November 3 - Despite protests outside, a hearing inside the John A. Wilson building, the seat of the District of Columbia government, showed positive signs that a franchise for Verizon Communication's fiber-optic service is imminent in the nation’s capital.
The D.C. Council’s Committee on Public Services and Consumer Affairs heard testimony from over fifty individuals on Friday, most of them urging the District government to approve a franchise for Verizon Communications to bring its fiber internet and cable TV technology to the capital.
The focus of the committee hearing was on the terms and conditions negotiated between the telecommunications firm and the District’s Office of Cable Television (OCT) and the committee seemed poised to approve them and send a bill to the full council for passage.
Among Verizon’s biggest cheerleaders within the hearing room was Committee Chairwoman Mary Cheh, D – Ward 3, who repeatedly stated her interest in welcoming a FiOS build-out in order to introduce more competition to the market and facilitate access for District resident’s to the state of the art fiber optic technology.
Verizon’s hand was further strengthened last week when it announced on the eve of the hearing that it would accelerate the timeline for buildout and promised to extend service to the entire district within nine years if the council approved the rest of the terms and conditions negotiated by OCT.
The new timeline also met the approval of Mayor Adrien Fenty who said that the “stepped-up commitment to upgrading the network with the latest technology will soon enable residents to reap the benefits of choice and competition in the cable arena.”
While there were plenty of other cheerleaders on hand in the hearing, some interest groups submitted their reservations regarding the agreement both inside and outside the Wilson Building.
On the steps of 1350 Pennsylvania Ave, protesters had gathered early in the morning to voice opposition to separate legislation that could shut-down a local homeless shelter and added Verizon to their protest targets as the 10am hearing approached.
Some of the testimony on Friday also cautioned the Council against approving a deal with Verizon that did not ensure proper employment and training provision for district residents, adequate space on the network for public access channels, and additional consumer protection provisions.
A host of consumer and labor interest groups, including the Communications Workers of America, expressed concern with Verizon’s use of non-union employment for installation work and Comcast Inc., the incumbent with the highest market share today, urged the Council to “level the playing field” by ensuring that Verizon had to meet all of the same provisions as existing competitors do.
At large Councilmember Kwame Brown, D joined the proceedings in order to submit his approval with key reservations regarding the proposed timeline of the Verizon build-out and the wait lower income residents in the District would have to endure.
Ward 5 Councilmember Tommy Thomas Jr., D echoed Brown’s concern and said that “we don’t want it to take ten, seven, five years…just like we don’t want to say ‘that’s a nice car, but I can’t get it in my neighborhood.’
Despite these reservations, the majority of those who testified were eager to welcome FiOS and the competition it would bring to incumbents like Comcast who witnesses were quick to criticize for its poor customer service in the District.
Robert Crandall, an academic and economist who has written extensively on the impact of competition on the telecommunications industry but testified independently as a District resident, lauded the FiOS service for the high speed Internet service it delivers, service only matched by that of Japan, the nation with the fastest and lowest priced broadband in the world.
While Cheh and other council members claimed they would address the issues in the agreement cited by critics, the chairwoman seemed eager to deliver the agreement to the full council and said that she has “been a pest” in her agitations for Verizon to bring FiOS to the nation’s capital.