Public access stations score victory over Comcast
Late last week the Public Utility Commission denied Comcast's request to change or remove some of the requirements in its recently renewed cable permit.
Comcast was not happy with several provisions related to its responsibilities for supporting public access television. The telecom also asked regulators to drop a requirement that it expand its service areas with 550 miles of line extensions before the end of 2027, when the new permit expires.
George Young, general counsel for the commission, said the new permit, called a certificate of public good, is now in effect.
Comcast can appeal the commission's decision, likely in federal court.
Kristen Roberts, vice president of communications for Comcast's western New England region, provided a brief statement Thursday afternoon. "We are disappointed the Vermont Public Utility Commission chose to deny our motion for important amendments necessary to fairly compete in Vermont," she said. "We are still reviewing the order and have not yet determined our next steps."
The reaction from Vermont Access Network, a nonprofit professional association that advocates for Vermont's public access television stations, was markedly different. Throughout the permit renewal process, the organization urged regulators not to reduce Comcast's obligations to support public, educational and governmental, or PEG, programming.
"We're thrilled, because we're pretty much the small guy here," said Lisa Byer, chair of Vermont Access Network's regulatory committee and executive director of CAT-TV, the public access station that serves the Bennington area.
A federal law allows local regulatory authorities to require that cable companies support public access programming in their service areas.
"PEG Access was a public benefit that could be required of the cable operator" as a tradeoff for "its monopoly-like cabling of a community to sell its commercial products via the public rights of way," Vermont Access Network says on its website.
In Vermont, Comcast subscribers fund public access stations through a fee included on their bills. According to a report prepared by the Public Utility Commission to accompany the new permit, Comcast provided more than $7.2 million to public access stations across the state in 2015.
The telecom also maintains the infrastructure that public access stations use to broadcast from public meetings and community events.
But there are several important ways Comcast's support of these stations has failed to meet "community needs and interests," the commission said in its report.
Comcast's biggest shortcoming has been not providing specific scheduling information for public access channels, the commission said. 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."
Focus groups convened during the permit renewal process agreed with the commission on this point. A common sentiment reported was that detailed program listings might increase viewership of PEG channels.
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 unsuccessfully to the commission that its previous permit's requirements for schedule information applied only to its old, non-interactive program guide on the TV Guide Channel.
Comcast also said its current technology prevents the new program guide from showing detailed schedule information for PEG channels. If the guide listed more specific information, subscribers in different towns would see conflicting schedules because they are covered by different public access stations but receive their broadcasts via the same control center.
The telecom's service area in Vermont includes the domains of 22 public access stations, but it has only eight centers that monitor and control broadcasts.
Paying to retrofit its technology would increase Vermonters' cable bills, the company argued. It also said adding a surcharge to pay for the retrofit would make the total PEG fees exceed a federal cap.
The commission rejected these arguments, too, 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.
Comcast had contested several other points in its new permit, including provisions clarifying the telecom's responsibility to provide broadcast capability at more schools, libraries and other public buildings.
Comcast argued that the commission didn't follow federally mandated procedure and overstepped its authority in drafting the permit.
Of the commission's recent decision, Byer said that "it's exciting, but we're fully prepared for (Comcast) to further appeal this."
"They have 120 days to appeal the decision," she said. "They will most likely do that in federal district court, and we will probably be fighting this for another year and a half."
That prospect does not worry Byer.
"We feel as though we have a lot of ground on federal regulations here," she said. "We are very confident going into a federal case, and we're prepared to do so."
Role in a changing media landscape
Byer said public access stations in Vermont know well that delivery mechanisms for video content are changing. Every year, more people "cut the cord" and choose to get all their video content from the Internet.
But, Byer said, for the immediate future, providing easily accessible content on cable television remains an essential part of Vermont's public access stations' commitments to their communities.
At present, only a handful of Vermont's 25 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."
The essential thing, Byer said, is "to still be at the table when those changes finally come to light."
"I think the real overarching theme is that we are being pushed into the background," she said. "We don't have access to HD channels and (the interactive program guide) and all those things we talked about, and by the time we get HD, they're going to be delivering everything in 4K" — a technology allowing even higher picture quality.
The farther behind public access programming is left, Byer said, "the less valuable we are, the less necessary they're going to claim we are."
"Sometimes we get caught in the weeds of the argument of having to be on the interactive program guide, but the reason for that goes much, much deeper," she added. "It's fighting for what we need right now, but it's all in preparation for what's to come."
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