Lisa Byer: The FCC wants to pull the plug on CAT-TV

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing rule changes that could have a devastating impact on CAT-TV and similar public access stations throughout the country. These newly proposed rules, contained in FCC Docket 05-311, would allow cable operators to reclassify certain services and charge them against the cable subscriber fees that are collected to fund public access stations.

That means that cable companies such as Comcast could assess value for currently "in kind" services that are related to providing public, educational, and governmental (PEG) access channels, and deduct that amount from the franchise fees that fund the operations of these channels. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the FCC loosely defines what services cable companies can now charge for and how the values of those services are determined. The result could mean that cable companies inflate or arbitrarily set values as to zero out any additional funding that could go to fund PEG centers.

Franchise fees were developed as part of the 1984 Cable Act as a condition for cable operators providing commercial cable TV services. These fees are referred to as "rent" for commercial access to and use of the public right of ways. In Vermont, these fees fund the 25 PEG Access Centers, including CAT-TV, as a public interest obligation to ensure that commercial media is balanced by meaningful non-commercial locally originated content.

Since 1991, CAT-TV has served Bennington, North Bennington, Woodford, Pownal and Shaftsbury as the local PEG Access Center. Our mission is to inform and engage community members, protect citizens' rights to free speech and provide access to a diverse dialogue that represents all aspects of our community. The majority of our funding comes from the franchise fees collected by Comcast through its cable subscribers. These fees enable us to provide citizens access to technology and channel space allowing them to have their voices heard, cover town and school board meetings opening the door to democracy and civic engagement, air local programming including community events and weekly church services and offer educational programs within our schools teaching students production and storytelling.

Despite "cord cutting" from traditional cable subscriptions and failure of legislation to keep up with changes in technology and delivery methods, the demand for local programming continues to grow. After 27 years, we remain more committed than ever to meet these growing community needs through unique, local, non-commercial community media services that are otherwise unavailable. We are the area's only source for transparency in government, access to technology, coverage of community events and local television. Last year, CAT-TV aired over 2,000 programs on its channels, facilitated production of more than 800 local shows and had over 200,000 minutes of programs viewed on our online platforms.

I encourage you to join me in opposing the FCC's proposed rulemaking in Docket 05-311. This policy could entirely defund our organization by allowing Comcast to charge for services against the fees meant to support our operations. This policy would undermine the intent of the 1984 Cable Act and could mean the end of CAT-TV and thousands of community access centers throughout the U.S. The FCC is willing to ignore the community value and impact stations such as CAT-TV have in towns like ours. Instead, they are working to put more money in the pockets of cable giants like Comcast. Do not let them take away the only public obligation Comcast has to our community.

To make a financial contribution to CAT-TV or to learn more visit www.catamountaccess.com or visit https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/filings to file a reply comment before 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 14. It is impossible for me to envision our community without CAT-TV, I hope you agree.

Lisa Byer is executive director of CAT-TV.

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