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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a law Saturday that advocates hope will make Illinois a national leader in opening cable television markets to competition.

Under the law, new cable companies can enter the state market without negotiating separate franchise agreements with each city and town. The law clears the way for AT&T and Verizon to compete with Comcast and Insight Communications for consumers' phone, Internet and cable needs.

A statewide franchising system will replace local service agreements.

"Under this new law, consumers in Illinois will now have more providers to choose from for cable TV service, and cable companies will be required to provide more reliable and on-time service," Gov. Blagojevich said in a statement.

Some mayors had warned that stripping them of franchising power could jeopardize customer service. But supporters say the law addresses that concern with several consumer protections, requiring companies to provide prompt installation and written notice on rate increases.

According to the law, companies also must maintain toll-free customer service lines and answer 90 percent of calls within 30 seconds; cable installation must be done within seven days and outages must be repaired within 48 hours.

The law provides among the strongest consumer quality standards in the nation, said Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, in the statement issued by the governor's office. Clayborne sponsored the bill with Rep. James Brosnahan (D-Oak Lawn).

Many provisions of the law go into effect immediately, with service quality standards for existing cable companies starting on Jan. 1, 2008.

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