August 2-8, 2006

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Public access TV

Trying to cope: If a new proposed bill passes, community cable-access stations would be under the control of the FCC.

Cable De-evolution?

In the name of competition, local cable-access control may be lost

By Patricia Lynn Henley

Heads up. Corporate America is taking aim at local cable television operations, and several features of the current system, which many people take for granted, may become only memories.

Public-access stations, the target of numerous comedy sketches, could disappear entirely or be relegated to odd hours and fluctuating schedules. Residents of rural or low-income regions might find it impossible to obtain the same level of technological services as more profitable districts. Customers with gripes about cable company operations or rates would no longer be able to air their grievances with local city council members or county supervisors, and could instead be required to register their complaints with the state bureaucracy or the distant faceless federal FCC.

"We're quite concerned. This would kind of turn everything on its head," says Dan Villalva, interim executive director of the Community Media Center of Santa Rosa, which operates channels 69, 70, 71 and 72 in that area.

In the name of competition and with the tantalizing promise that this will result in lower prices for consumers, AT&T is conducting a lobbying blitz at both the state and national levels. The goal is to craft legislation allowing telephone companies to compete with cable companies by offering video services while bypassing the process of negotiating local franchise agreements on a city-by-city basis.

"They're trying to change the rules," Villalva says. "The cable and telephone companies want to be able to go into communities and get profits and not necessarily give much back."

In California, the state assembly has passed AB 2987, which would take the power to negotiate and collect franchise fees away from local governments and give it to the state. Villalva notes that the city of Santa Rosa took three years to carefully craft a cable contract. It's highly unlikely state officials would put that much effort into negotiating an agreement that meets local needs.

The state has promised to return the franchise fees to the cities and counties, but given past practices, local officials are pretty sure those monies would be diverted to the state's general fund any time California faces another budget crisis.

"This will affect more than just public-access TV," says Rick Tucker, executive director of Novato Public Access. "This was a pretty good revenue source for each local city government."

Under AB 2987, local-access stations would receive just 1 percent of any franchise fee, with that money earmarked for capital purchases only; none of it could be used for operating expenses. This would be a hard hit for cable access stations, many of which get most or all of their budget from franchise fees. They could end up with excellent equipment, but be unable to pay the utility bill.

And although AB 2987 allows for the existence of local-access programs, it doesn't mandate specific channels dedicated solely to that function. The bill's opponents worry that "local access" could be broadcast, say, from 2am to 5am on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or some other arbitrary arrangement.

And other services may be affected. In addition to a franchise fee of up to 5 percent, current federal law allows governments to negotiate for "community benefit programs," says Martin Nichols of the Marin Telecommunications Agency, which covers unincorporated areas of Marin County and all of its cities except Novato. Community-benefit programs are public, education and government (PEG) access shows, and institutional networks (I-nets) which allow agencies to link their computers network for free through the cable system.

All the computers in 10 Marin County cities are hooked into Marin's cable I-net, saving money by sharing a common e-mail system, data processing and other services. The original version of AB 2987 did away with PEGs and free I-nets, but amendments have been made to include these programs. However, says Nichols, "It's still not clear how it would work."

And one of the biggest problems with AB 2987 is that it would let companies "cherry pick" the areas where they want to provide service, says Megan Taylor, director of communications for the League of California Cities. The bill does make companies provide coverage to 50 percent of low-income districts in a given area, but doesn't say when that has to happen or what services will be available to the other 50 percent.

"We're talking about what amounts to the public airwaves. Under this bill, telecommunications services are being treated like a commodity that the telephone companies can make money off of," Taylor points out. "Telecommunications services, we think, should be treated as an essential service. We need plans and in some cases guarantees that all our citizens end up with the tools you need to function in the 21st century."

Representatives of cable-access companies, local governments and other concerned groups have been meeting with state legislative staff members to negotiate potential amendments on key points--but so has AT&T.

"They'll talk to us and then they'll talk to AT&T, and then we'll find that, no, they really can't make that amendment," Taylor says.

The exact language of the amended bill won't be available until the legislature goes back into session on Aug. 8.

"It's too important, we think, to let a bad bill become law," Taylor adds. "The only thing that's going to stop that from happening at this point is for people to contact their legislators and contact the governor and say, 'Do not pass a bill until all these concerns are resolved.'"

Unfortunately, even if California takes its time crafting a well-thought-out piece of legislation, it might be preempted by federal law, or there could be considerable litigation before exact jurisdiction is established.

"This bill is not happening just here in California," Taylor notes. "AT&T and Verizon to some extent have been pushing the same bill in states all over the country. They actually passed it in Texas, and they're pushing it in Congress, too."

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006, known as the COPE Act. The U.S. Senate is working on a similar bill. If a federal law is approved, it might supersede state regulations, says Dan Moñez, executive director of Napa Community Access Television, channels 27 and 28.

"Control of community access could be under the FCC," Moñez says. "Instead of being able to go to your local supervisors to complain about cable service, you would have to file a complaint with the FCC. It would create a whole new bureaucracy at the federal level to administer this."

The Napa access stations operate on an estimated $220,000 annual budget. About 20 percent of that comes from fundraising efforts, membership fees and sponsorships. The rest is from the locally negotiated franchise fee, which would be lost if either the state or federal legislation passes as currently written.

When the New Year's storms hit, Napa's local radio transmitter was under water. Because Napa Community Access Television has dedicated public-access channels--something not included in the proposed legislation--they were able to preempt their scheduled programming and immediately switch to an emergency basis. "We were the only source of local information in the January floods, because the Bay Area media couldn't get into the Napa area," Moñez recalls. "That could all go away."

In the name of competition and in pursuit of profits, AT&T and other telephone companies are trying to fix a cable-franchise process that isn't necessarily broken.

"The best way to do it is the way it's been done, which is at the local level so people have access and so local people can have some input on what their cable company is doing," Moñez says.

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