An agreement has been reached with Comcast and the Vermont Public Utility Commission that will allow Comcast to continue to be a cable television provider in Vermont while offering some benefits for local cable access channels and local communities.
A press release from the Vermont Access Network, or VAN, which represents more than 20 community media centers that operate public, educational and government, or PEG, access channels, said the agreement was finalized Oct. 1.
The agreement was reached by VAN, Comcast and the Vermont Department of Public Service.
Among the requirements for Comcast are the construction of at least 350 miles of new cable line, the preservation of existing PEG remote origination sites and support of other means of remote origination and the creation of at least one channel by Jan. 1, 2021, that can support high-definition content.
One aspect of the new agreement was of particular importance to some local officials involved with public access cable stations.
Rob Chapman, executive director of Onion River Community Access, or ORCA Media, in Montpelier said about the settlement between Vermont organizations and Comcast, that all parties “gave some ground, but we got to a great middle ground.”
“I think particularly with the access to the interactive program guide, we’re going to be much more on par with the other broadcast stations and people will be able to find our content much easier,” he said.
Tom Leypoldt, executive director of PEG-TV in Rutland, agreed that the placement of cable access stations within the onscreen interactive programming guide that shows not only what’s being broadcast at the moment but allows viewers to see what’s coming, would be an important advancement.
Leypoldt said viewers had been asking “for years” to have the local cable channel added to the guide.
“We do have (the schedule) published on our website, but to have us listed right along all the other channels will be spectacular,” Leypoldt said.
For Comcast, or another cable provider, to operate in Vermont, the provider must have a Certificate of Public Good. Part of earning that certificate has long been the support of local stations that provide local programming, but every 10 years, the certificate must be renewed allowing the PEG channels, controlled by access management organizations to negotiate a new agreement that reflects the latest in technology and methods.
For instance, Lisa Byers, chairwoman of VAN’s Regulatory Committee, described “remote origination” as the process of creating content outside the studio. For Byers, executive director of Catamount Access Television, that might mean broadcasting a meeting of the Bennington Select Board or the Arlington School Board.
Byers said some stations, like hers, were moving to streaming video as a way to carry those local events live. The new agreement may make that easier.
“I think there will be financial support from the cable company to help us purchase the equipment necessary to utilize the alternative solutions. We had not had that in the past,” she said.
Byers said some live sites, like town halls wired to allow live broadcasting, will continue.
In a statement, Elizabeth Walden, a spokeswoman for Comcast in Vermont, said the company was “thankful” to renew its CPG.
“We are proud to serve the Green Mountain State and remain focused on continuing to deliver our advanced products and services and to supporting the communities where our customers and employees live and work. Since 2011, this has included more than $6 million in grants and in-kind donations and services to Vermont nonprofit organizations,” Walden said.
Byers said she believed the new agreement was a “step forward, and there will be many benefits for the communities and the stations.”
While an agreement has been reached with Comcast for the state-issued CPG, Byers pointed out that local AMO organizations were still concerned about a recent decision from the federal government that could have important funding implications.
Cable providers, including Comcast, must provide funding for local cable access channels in return for their access to public airwaves. But that amount is capped at 5% of the gross revenues from a cable provider and a new rule from the Federal Communications Commission, effective as of last month, will allow in-kind contributions be treated as “franchise fees” and subject to the 5% cap.
Angelina Panettieri, the principal associate for Technology and Communication at the National League of Cities, described the change in an article this week as “the most substantial change to cable franchising in the past 35 years since the 1984 Cable Act was signed into law.”