Endangered Access TV

I tried to highlight three things as most essential to the future of access television. First, there has to be a regulatory requirement for video providers to carry the access channels. Second, there has to be a funding mechanism. Third, there has to be a network neutrality requirement, so that access producers aren't shut out of new technologies. These issues, however, are playing out right now at the federal, not state, level.

I made some notes for myself before the interview, and promised I'd post them here. They follow.

What's required for public access TV to exist?

  • Carriage of PEG (Public Educational Governmental) channels.
    • Minimum channel requirements mandated by Federal regulations.
    • Franchise agreement may contain additional provisions.
  • Funding for the access channels.
    • Pays for facilities, equipment, personnel.
    • No Federal requirements, may be provided by franchise agreement.
    • Typically implemented as a "pass-through" fee collected by operator and passed through to municipality.
  • These are the air supply that allow public access to exist.

The situation last year

  • Federal law requires video provider to obtain a franchise from the local municipality.
  • The franchise allows the video provider access to our "right of ways".
  • In return, the provider compensates the municipality. Both monetarily and non-monetarily.
  • Federal regulations require the provider to carry a number of PEG (Public Educational Governmental) channels.
  • Municipalities negotiate terms of the agreement. So, they may obtain additional PEG channels.
  • Austin had franchise agreements with Time-Warner and Grande that provide for three public access channels (10, 11, 16) and a $0.30 pass-through.
  • Additionally, Grande hosted the playback unit.

The situation now

  • State law SB 5 was passed last year, in the second special session called for school finance and tax reform.
  • The State PUC will now award statewide franchises for video, bypassing local franchise negotiations.
  • Small video providers can break their local franchises. Grande has done so.
  • Large providers can move to a state franchise when their current contract expires. We expect Time-Warner will do so in 2010.
  • Grandfathers existing active PEG channels. Unactivated channels are lost.
  • Provides fees to the municipalities.
  • Grande is no longer required to do access playback. The city is paying them to do it.

The future

  • There are competing bills in the U.S. House and the Senate.
  • Time is short and differences are significant, but who knows?
  • The Barton Bill:
    • By Rep. Joe Barton of Texas.
    • HR 5252: The Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006.
    • Has passed the house.
  • The Stevens Bill:
    • By Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.
    • S 2686: The Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006
    • Has passed out of committee.
    • Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas voted in favor and opposed many community-favored amendments.
    • Sen. Stevens has since renamed and renumbered the bill, as a parliamentary maneuver to sidestep floor debate.
  • Impacts are uncertain.

The two sides of the debate

  • Politicians and news media try to reduce complex issues to a two-sided debate.
  • The two sides that are being heard are: the phone companies and the cable providers.
  • Community interests are not being heard, and I think that is the biggest threat to public access right now.
  • There are some groups trying to represent community interest: