A BAD START FOR VERIZON

22Jun07

A major corporation comes to town and says whatever it needs to say so that local officials will let them do business here, and then waits for the town to threaten legal action before living up to its agreement.

I know–it’s shocking. But that’s exactly what communications mega-giant Verizon did to the town of Wakefield, Massachusetts in the last year.

I was at the May 22, 2006 public hearing on Verizon’s request for a cable license in Wakefield. I was sitting just a few feet from Verizon spokesman Jim McGrail, who was present to answer questions from the selectmen related to Verizon’s application for a cable license.

It was clear to me as I watched the hearing unfold that the board was not inclined to grant the license that night, and would probably continue the hearing to another date. One of the selectmen’s concerns was the amount of time — up to one full year — that the license would give Verizon to start carrying Wakefield’s local public, educational and governmental (PEG) channels, WCAT and the high school channel.

The selectmen asked McGrail if that time frame could be shortened to, say, six months. McGrail replied that Verizon would only agree to start carrying those PEG channels sooner if the selectmen granted Verizon a cable license that night. The selectmen took Verizon at its word and issued the license at that May 22, 2006 hearing.

I remember wondering at the time whether McGrail really had any idea if Verizon could keep this promise or not. I also remember thinking that it didn’t matter, because he was going to say whatever he needed to say in order to get the selectmen to issue the license that night.

The rest is history.

After the six months passed, there were no Wakefield PEG channels on Verizon’s system. After eight months, Verizon customers still couldn’t watch the Board of Selectmen or the School Committee on TV. After ten months, Verizon still wasn’t carrying WCAT or Wakefield High’s channel on its local system. One full year later, no local channels were offered on Verizon’s Wakefield system.

Selectman Betsey Sheeran stayed on them, calling Verizon officials at regular intervals to find out what the delay was. But it wasn’t until she threatened last week to meet with Town Counsel Thomas Mullen to initiate legal action that Verizon scrambled their technicians in any serious effort to get it done.

I find it inconceivable that with all its vast resources, a multi-billion-dollar corporation like Verizon could not have accomplished this in six or eight months as originally promised—-if it really wanted to.

Its performance in Wakefield is consistent with Verizon’s intense lobbying effort in the Massachusetts Legislature to take cable franchising control out of the hands of local officials and give the state the authority to issue cable licenses. You see, local officials have an annoying habit of asking for things like local channels in exchange for letting these companies use utility poles and other municipally owned rights of way.

Big national companies like Verizon don’t understand why local public access TV channels matter in communities like Wakefield. But the Board of Selectmen understands that Wakefield viewers want to watch their School Committee, their selectmen and their Town Meeting on television. Wakefield viewers want to watch political debates on TV before local elections. They want to watch WCAT’s coverage of the July 4th Parade and other local events.

Selectman Phyllis Hull understands how important this local TV coverage is to Wakefield citizens. She has been asking for expanded WCAT coverage of even more local boards and committees.

Big companies like Verizon know that they can come into local municipalities and basically say whatever they have to say to get the license, special permit or variance that they need in order to get their foot in the door. They count on the fact that cities and towns have neither the resources nor the expertise to follow up and make sure the companies are doing what they oh-so-sincerely promised in order to get what they wanted.

So Wakefield was forced to threaten legal action just to get Verizon to do what it promised to do in order to get a cable license.

What a great way to start a business relationship.

[This column originally appeared in the June 21, 2007 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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