MONTPELIER — Public access officials say the industry is facing problems from multiple sides.
The officials sat down Wednesday with the Vermont House Committee on Energy and Technology to discuss the issues the industry faces.
Kevin Christopher, president of the Vermont Access Network, told the committee public access channels exist to not only give the public the means to produce their own content, but also to cover municipal meetings in order to create a link between residents and their local governments. Christopher said there are 25 public access providers around the state.
He said private cable providers use public rights of way to run their lines in order to conduct their business. In exchange, he said, those providers are required by federal law to provide certain public benefits, such as giving public access organizations the ability to use their channels.
Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy in Burlington, told the committee the state’s Public Utility Commission has repeatedly entered decisions requiring cable providers to provide channels for public access.
“For various reasons, over time the cable industry has said that they feel (public access) … is an important offering for their subscribers. But in reality the dominant provider (in Vermont), which at one time was Cox and then it was Green Mountain Cable and then it was Adelphia Cable and now it’s Comcast cable … have actively tried to make it as difficult as possible for the access centers to be part of the main stream of the cable offering,” Davitian said.
She said the state’s ability to require cable providers to also provide public access is being compromised by threats from the cable industry. She said the first threat comes from a general erosion of cable viewers as more people “cut the cord.”
She said it’s more cost-effective for people to pick what they want to watch a la cart via the internet instead of buying a cable package.
Davitian said Comcast sought a renewal of its 11-year contract with the state to provide cable services and in January 2017, the PUC said Comcast could continue to operate in the state under certain conditions. Those included making sure public access channels could be found on the cable provider’s electronic program guide.
“Now this seems like kind of a funny, arcane, small thing, but actually public access channels are not listed on the program guide because of the lack of upgrades that the cable industry has made in their plant. They estimated that it would cost $3 million in order to upgrade these interactive program guides, which is really the heart and soul of the cable system,” she said.
Davitian said the PUC told Comcast it had to make these upgrades so public access channels would be more visible to residents. Instead, she said, Comcast took the state to federal court.
She said that case is still ongoing.
Davitian said the Federal Communications Commission is currently looking at deregulating, and has proposed a rule that would allow cable providers to subtract the cost of channels and other services from the dollars that are allocated for public access. Cable providers currently have to set that money aside for use by public access organizations.
Davitian said the U.S. Supreme Court has also hinted that it might consider public access unconstitutional. The court has never said the Cable Act of 1984, which established the rules requiring cable providers to provide space for public access channels, is constitutional.
“All of those things have our knickers in a twist. We are very concerned about those questions because we think they will effect the long-term viability of this very important service,” she said.
Rep. Timothy Briglin, D-Thetford, is chairman of the committee and wanted to know what could be done in Vermont about the issues facing public access.
Davitian said the state Department of Public Service has asked the PUC to conduct a workshop on these issues with cable providers. She said public access officials are floating the idea of creating a study committee to look at these issues and discuss them in depth. She said the committee would look at what other states are doing to restructure how public access is funded.