Vermont’s community access television stations are likely to see budget shortfalls during the next 6 years, falling by $1.37 million by 2026, according to a report released earlier this month.
While the report paints the future of the public, educational and government access television (PEG) stations as uncertain, it takes an in-depth look at what the state could do to modernize how public service telecommunications are funded.
In 2020, the Legislature passed a bill calling on the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) to commission this report. ACCD contracted Berkshire Telecommunications Consulting to do the work. It was submitted to the General Assembly on Feb. 10. The Senate Committee on Finance is scheduled to talk about it Wednesday.
According to the report, the PEG stations primary source of funding is from cable companies. How much funding they get depends on how many cable television customers there are in their area. The more people give up their cable lines for internet fiber, the less money the PEG stations get.
“Essentially, convergence has come to the telecommunications industry, phone, television and broadcast have historically been regulated by the (Federal Communications Commission) as very separate types of communications, but they pretty much are now being largely delivered on the internet, which runs on fiber lines that are often owned by the same companies, but not subject to the same public interest provisions,” said Lauren-Glenn Davitian, executive director, of CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, which provides government access channels to the Burlington, South Burlington, Essex, Williston, Winooski, and Colchester areas.
She said Congress and the FCC have also limited the ways in which internet services can be taxed.
People giving up their cable television lines for the internet, or their land telephone lines for a smartphone, is referred to as “cord cutting” by many.
“So this study was meant to look at the decline in PEG revenue because of cable cord cutting, and it was meant to look at two things, one, what are the revenue options for PEG in light of the declining cable revenue which is our primary revenue source? And are there any savings the 25 community media centers could generate?” she said.
Davitian said the issue also affects the E911 system, which is funded based on the number of telephone landlines.
The report shows Vermont has some options, Davitian said. It could create an excise tax, a right-of-way fee, a streaming tax, or dip into the General Fund. One or more of these could then feed a Public Telecommunications Benefit Fund.
The issue is complex, Davitian said. This report will likely be taken up by several legislative committees in both the House and Senate and it’s not clear how the state’s desire to expand broadband internet to all corners of Vermont will play into it.
“We’re looking forward to working with the Legislature to review these recommendations and think about how to solve this,” she said.
Tammie Reilly, president of Vermont Access Network, the umbrella organization for Vermont’s PEG stations and executive director of the Greater Northshire Access Television serving the Manchester area, said it’s too early to see what kind of attention this gets from lawmakers this session, but she’s pleased to see this report was completed and is being discussed.
“I think what’s most exciting to me is that it presents some opportunities to have some important discussions, that’s really the key,” she said.