Two pending rulings could have dire consequences for the 25 community television outlets in the state, according to advocates for the Community Media Access Centers.
Last year, Comcast, the state’s largest cable TV operator, filed an appeal in federal court in Rutland over conditions imposed by the state Public Utility Commission as part of its January 2017 franchise renewal or certificate of public good. The CPG is valid for 11 years.
Those conditions include granting PEG (public, educational and governmental) media outlets access to Comcast’s interactive programming guide. The PUC also ordered the company to provide more community hookups or drops for live programming and ordered Comcast to build 550 miles of additional cable to reach more rural areas of the state.
After losing its appeal to the PUC, Comcast filed an appeal in U.S. District Court in Rutland.
In its appeal, the company said the PUC conditions were costly to implement and represented unreasonable demands from local PEG channels.
Comcast also alleged the conditions violated its First Amendment rights, a claim that was later dismissed by Chief Judge Geoffrey Crawford.
The company also lost its attempt to deny the Vermont Access Network intervenor status in the case. The organization represents the 25 PEGs.
The other case takes on nationwide significance. The Federal Communications Commission is considering adopting a rule (MB Docket No. 05-311) that would allow cable operators to deduct “in-kind” services from its franchise fees that states use to support PEGs.
State regulators can assess cable companies up to 5 percent of annual revenues to support PEG stations.
Lisa Byer of the Vermont Access Network said, if adopted, the FCC rule allowing cable companies to deduct in-kind services from its franchise fees would be devastating.
“This rule making could change that which could end funding unilaterally,” said Byer, VAN’s public policy chairman. “So that’s a huge threat.”
Should Comcast win its court case, Greg EplerWood, who owns MediaVox, a Burlington consulting business, said Comcast’s federal appeal (Case No. 5:l7-cv-00161-gwc) would handicap PEG media access centers around the state.
“What Comcast is trying to do is to eliminate the cost, such as having to build out the additional miles and also to change their technology, all their equipment, to enable each access center (PEG) to put their program guide on the screen, interactive program guide,” EplerWood said. “It further ghettoizes and handicaps our community media centers around the state.”
Tom Leypoldt, executive director of Rutland Community Access, said gaining access to Comcast’s interactive programming guide is no small matter.
“That’s something we’ve been fighting for for a long time because one of our major feedbacks that we get is people want to know when things are on,” Leypoldt said.
Rob Chapman, executive director of Onion River Community Access Media, which covers the greater Montpelier area, said the PUC gave Comcast one year from the issuance of the CPG to include PEGs in its interactive programming guide.
“It’s important for people who rely on cable and the interactive programming guide to be able to find their local content,” Chapman said.
The proposed FCC rule change could drastically shrink the money the Rutland PEG counts on.
Leypoldt said Rutland Community Access receives $200,000 every three months or $800,000 a year from Comcast’s franchise fee.
He said he’s unsure what Comcast considers in-kind contributions.
“That does concern us because we don’t know what the dollar value of that stuff would be and it would impact us greatly if it took a giant chunk out of our franchise fees,” Leypoldt said.
(Such in-kind services could include the value of the PEG channels, as well as the mandated free hookups to schools, libraries and municipal buildings in Comcast’s service territory).
For Onion River Community Access, which serves 14 towns, the franchise fees total $450,000 a year, Chapman said.
Although not included as a condition of its franchise renewal, Leypoldt said PEGs in the state are pushing Comcast to upgrade PEG channels from standard definition to high definition.
“If the public access stations don’t get on this platform of high definition, one of our biggest concerns is that we’ll be left behind in the technology race,” he said.
The PUC did not order Comcast to convert PEGs to high definition but did require the cable company to compile data on HD and standard definition channels and usage.
In issuing the CPG, the PUC stated “it will open a proceeding related to the activation of HD PEG channels on Comcast’s systems in Vermont upon a request by the Vermont Access Network, the Department (of Public Service), Comcast” or any PEG outlet that is filed at least two years after the issuance of the CPG.
Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernard Sanders were among 11 senators who signed a letter warning FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that the proposed rule change threatens “the sustainability of PEG stations” around the country.
“If this order is eventually adopted in its current form, cities and towns across the country may soon have to decide between supporting local PEG channels and supporting other critical institutions serving the public good,” the senators wrote in their Oct. 29 letter. “This is a lose-lose choice for LFAs (local franchising authorities) and the residents they serve. We fear this proposal will result in a dire drop in resources for PEG channels throughout the nation.”
Byer of the Vermont Access Network said it’s disheartening to see the FCC dismantling regulations that are intended to serve the public.
She added that some states allocate cable franchise fees for other purposes and not solely to support PEGs.
Although the comment period closed on Nov. 14, the FCC is accepting replies to filed comments (MB 5-311) until Dec. 14.
Asked to comment on the PUC appeal, Comcast emailed the following statement:
“Comcast continues to move forward in the matter of the pending appeal of the Vermont PUC decision. We appreciate the thoroughness of the Court in this matter. As the schedule indicates, the process will continue through 2019. In the meantime, we continue to focus on the delivery of advanced products and services to our Vermont customers, and a great customer experience.”
The company did not comment on the proposed FCC rule change.