As a longtime consumer champion against skyrocketing cable television rates, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has a famous line that always gets a chuckle: 'There are two sure signs of spring in Washington: the arrival of tourists to enjoy the cherry blossoms, and the release of the FCC report that cable rates have risen during the previous year.'

According to the Federal Communications Commission, cable rates have indeed been climbing Ñ at an average annual rate of 7.5 percent for the past decade. If this trend continues, consumers will be paying an average of $100 per month for basic cable TV in just 10 short years.

Fortunately for consumers, help is on the way. Bills are being considered in the U.S. House and Senate that would streamline the process by which companies like Qwest can offer competitive TV services. Specifically, a bill called the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act, or COPE Act, would ease the franchising rules that would-be competitors to cable monopolies must currently negotiate with every town and city.

This helps consumers by paving the way for a second cable TV provider in their community. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, cable rates in communities with wire line-based TV competition are up to 41 percent lower than communities without such competition.

Most important, the bill would allow companies to enter the cable TV market without facing unreasonable 'build-out' rules that require them to reach every single home. Such mandates require massive investment, regardless of consumer interest or technical feasibility. Instead of promoting competition, these mandates stymie it.

The TV business is not new to Qwest. We first began offering TV services in 1995. We provide service to about 60,000 customers in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska.

Not surprisingly, we have the cable monopolies' attention. The big cable monopolies are lobbying members of Congress in an attempt to defeat COPE. If they succeed, consumers in Oregon will lose, plain and simple.

Qwest has been rapidly deploying its broadband technology in communities for several years. We now offer high-speed Internet services to more than 78 percent of our local service customers, and we have deployed our broadband facilities in a manner that makes it possible to offer TV services over those same facilities as the technology matures.

Qwest intends to deploy its advanced broadband services as broadly as possible. We will do so by utilizing our existing facilities to the greatest extent possible.

That's not likely to happen in Oregon and elsewhere if Comcast and the other cable monopolies prevail in Congress. And it's important to note that national franchise legislation doesn't simply benefit Qwest; it opens the door to any company interested in providing competitive TV services to Oregon consumers.

While competition in the cable industry might one day steal the punch line from McCain's jibe, the good news is it will bring a lasting smile to the faces of consumers.

Judy Peppler is Qwest state president for Oregon.

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