With the help of a strong grassroots push, co-ops in Virginia defeated legislation that would have subjected them to new state regulations on pole attachments and provided a windfall to telecommunications and cable companies.
House and Senate committees in the Virginia General Assembly tabled bills backed by cable interests that would have curtailed co-ops’ ability to negotiate with providers on attachment terms, and capped fees they can charge for attachments to utility poles.
Instead, the State Corporation Commission will conduct a study of the issue, with participation from all stakeholders, and report to the legislature in November.
“It’s definitely a grassroots success story,” said Susan Rubin, vice president of Governmental Affairs for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives. “We had never activated the grassroots to this level, but our members were very, very involved and showed they could deliver legislatively.”
The Virginia case has attracted widespread attention because cable companies and other pole attachers have been attempting to legislate greater access to co-op poles at regulated fees.
Virginia does not currently regulate pole attachment rates. Co-ops also are exempt from Federal Communications Commission pole attachment jurisdiction. The FCC is on track to issue new rules in April that are expected to heavily favor attachers.
“This was not a case of Virginia cooperatives doing anything wrong,” Rubin said. “This was a case of cable going state-by-state to address this issue and, this year, it happened to be Virginia’s turn.”
Comcast and Cox Communications were among leaders in the Virginia push, which would have given the SCC jurisdiction in disputed cases and essentially capped attachment rates under the FCC’s formulas.
Investor-owned utilities covered by those formulas have long criticized them because they do not provide for full recovery of costs.
A rate ceiling would prevent co-ops from fully recouping their infrastructure expenses, Rubin said, so members of the 13 co-ops in the state would have subsidized for-profit cable companies through higher electric bills.
Co-ops pulled out all the stops with a grassroots campaign that included a website, www.cablewinsyoulose.com , which co-op members used to send e-mails to elected officials about how the legislation would raise electricity costs.
Rubin said that helped to reframe the debate from one that pitted cable companies and their subscribers against utilities, to one that pitted cable companies against rural co-op members.
Co-ops also used monthly magazines, newsletters, bill stuffers and radio ads to press the case. “The campaign was so successful we actually had some legislators say, ‘Please have your people stop calling us and e-mailing us,’ ” said Jeb Hockman, manager of member and public relations for the statewide association.
A House Commerce and Labor subcommittee tabled the bill, authored by Rep. William Janis, R-Henrico County, on Jan. 27. The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee also tabled two similar Senate measures.
The issues raised in those and other tabled legislation related to pole attachments will go to the SCC for further study.
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