Comcast files federal suit against utilities commission decision

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BRATTLEBORO — A dispute between Comcast and the Vermont Public Utility Commission tied to the operator's franchise renewal agreement has wound up in federal court.

Comcast had asked that requirements tied to the renewal of its 11-year franchise agreement, carved out earlier this year, be taken off the table. This includes a mandate that Comcast support and carry the state's community access channels, as well as build out 550 miles of network expansion over the next 11 years. Comcast also resisted a requirement that it provide the infrastructure to allow for high-definition, live cable broadcasts from sites in Vermont.

On Monday, Comcast filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Burlington, arguing the PUC "exceeded its authority under federal and Vermont law" by imposing "numerous conditions on Comcast's continued cable operations in the state that are arbitrary, unprecedented and will ultimately harm local cable subscribers by resulting in millions of dollars in increased cable costs." Comcast is asking a federal judge to overturn portions of its Vermont operating permit, arguing that compliance will cost it $4 million.

The filing was not a surprise to the Vermont Access Network, a non-profit professional association that advocates for Vermont's public access television stations.

"We feel as though we have a lot of ground on federal regulations here," Lisa Byer, chair of Vermont Access Network's regulatory committee and executive director of CAT-TV in Bennington, told VTDigger following the PUC's ruling. "We are very confident going into a federal case, and we're prepared to do so."

Kevin Christopher, of Lake Champlain Access Television and president of the board of Vermont Access Network, told the Reformer that whether VAN files a friend of the court brief has not yet been decided.

"We worked very hard to make sure our members are close to reaching parity with commercial station and access centers in other states," said Christopher. "We were very pleased by the PUC's decision. It went a long way to bringing us up to date with current technology and opened the door for us to broadcast in high definition."

Currently, stations such as Brattleboro Community Television, stream content live on the internet and record meetings in HD. But live broadcast or the broadcast of recorded meetings is done in standard definition.

Cor Trowbridge, the executive director of BCTV, said testimony from community leaders and supporters of public access television was crucial in the PUC's decision.

"People from all walks of life spoke about the importance of public access channels," she said. "The exciting thing is to have the state rule in our favor twice now on these important issues."

According to a report from the PUC (formerly known as the Public Service Board), Comcast had failed to meet "community needs and interests," especially in not providing specific scheduling information for public access channels. Since transitioning to an interactive program guide in 2010, Comcast has listed only very general descriptions for these channels such as "public access programming" or "government access programming." By not providing specific schedule information, the commission said Comcast violated the terms of both its previous permit and a 2011 FCC order prohibiting the telecom from treating public access stations differently from commercial ones.

Comcast argued that paying to retrofit its technology would increase Vermonters' cable bills, but the PUC rejected these arguments, saying it would be unfair for customers to "bear both the burden of Comcast's non-compliance as well as the costs of remedying such non-compliance." The commission ordered Comcast to make the necessary infrastructure changes at its own expense and fix the problem with the interactive guide.

Southern Vermont has a number of public access stations — BCTV in Brattleboro, Falls Area Community TV in Bellows Falls, Greater Northshire Access TV in Manchester, Catamount Access TV in Bennington, Springfield Area Public Access TV, Channel 8 in Wilmington, Windsor On Air, Woodstock Community TV and Ludlow, Plymouth, Cavendish TV. A number of them broadcast on Channel 8.

"The board ultimately agreed that Comcast deliberately combined its guide knowing it would make them out of compliance," said Trowbridge.

Trowbridge also noted that many people have high definition screens in their homes and those sets are programmed only to search for high def channels, meaning BCTV's standard definition broadcast channels aren't viewed. "You can't find them using the program guide like you do for everything else — for instance, you can't search for the Brattleboro Select Board on the interactive guide — and you can't stumble across them if you are programmed just for HD."

At present, only a handful of Vermont's public access stations offer live streaming on their websites for all channels. Nearly all stations have some archived footage available online, but most have only a selection of what has been broadcast. Still, Byer said that all of her organization's efforts in the permit renewal process "have been in preparation for the decline of traditional cable television and understanding that the delivery mechanisms are changing, the viewer habits are changing."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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