Editor’s Word: This story has been revised to embrace a letter from state Sen. Adam Hinds to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in regards to the proposed rule changes.
Berkshire County — If new guidelines are adopted by the Federal Communications Fee, local public-access cable stations similar to CTSB might exit of enterprise, leaving local residents with out choices for retaining an in depth eye on their city governments or faculty districts.
Because it did final yr with the repeal of internet neutrality, the FCC has stirred up a hornet’s nest of discord in Berkshire County and past. Those that run the county’s three access channels say the brand new guidelines, which might severely impression their income streams, would probably put them out of enterprise and deprive the general public of beneficial programming obtainable nowhere else.
Beneath present FCC guidelines, cities and cities nationwide are allowed to negotiate franchise agreements with cable tv suppliers. These municipalities can require within the agreements that the cable corporations meet sure group wants resembling setting apart channels for public, instructional or governmental (PEG) channels. These wants are funded by a franchise charge within the cable invoice clients obtain every month.
Nevertheless, the FCC’s proposal would allow cable corporations to assign a worth to these channels, deem them in-kind contributions after which subtract that quantity, and the worth they place on some other in-kind contributions, from the franchise charges the cable firm pays the local group, recognized legally because the local franchising authority.
These in-kind contributions might embrace free or lowered cable connections to city halls, backhaul of alerts, interactive program guides, or maybe channel spectrums allotted to the PEGs themselves, in accordance to the northeast area of the Alliance for Group Media, a commerce group.
“The result would be to charge these ‘expenses’ back against the franchise fee and essentially undermine the intent of the Cable Act,” Mike Wassenaar, spokesman for the alliance, stated in a information launch. “The national impact on PEG Access and local municipalities could be devastating.”
Meaning those that take pleasure in catching up on what’s happening of their city halls might be in for a shock if the brand new guidelines are adopted. That additionally means dangerous information for followers of open authorities.
“Our work is critical, especially in the small towns,” Shawn Serre, government director of Pittsfield Group Tv, stated in an interview. “If they put us out of business, we can’t do any of these things.”
To make issues worse, cable access channels have seen their income streams shrink as extra individuals abandon cable in favor of varied internet-based video streaming units akin to Roku, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV. So when shoppers minimize the cable tv twine, they not pay a franchise payment, which reduces the working revenues of the PEGs.
To view the proposed FCC rule changes, click on right here. Or click on right here to learn the FCC press launch, which primarily features as a quick government abstract. One can solely guess as to what the FCC’s motives are, however the sources The Edge contacted weren’t shy about doing simply that.
“Corporate greed—that’s all this is,” Serre stated.
Requested whether or not the brand new guidelines have been designed to steer new income streams towards the cable corporations in an period of cord-cutting, Serre replied, “That’s pretty much the way it’s going to play out.”
“They’re trying to offset the losses,” added Leo Mahoney, station supervisor of Group Tv of the Southern Berkshires in Lee. “The cable companies are bleeding because of the cord-cutters. This move is a way for them to start recouping.”
To be truthful, the rule changes have been proposed by the FCC itself and never Constitution, Comcast or any of the opposite cable behemoths. However suspicions run deep that the cable foyer had exerted lobbying muscle on the FCC for guidelines changes that may improve revenues in an period of some decline.
Paul Rapp is an lawyer based mostly in Berkshire County whose apply consists of media and First Modification regulation.
“It’s nonsense,” Rapp stated of the proposed rule changes. “It’s just more of the FCC giving away money to big cable, which they’ve done repeatedly since Pai became commissioner.”
It was a reference to Ajit V. Pai, a former affiliate basic counsel at Verizon, who was appointed chairman of the FCC by President Trump and was stated to be the prime impetus behind the controversial repeal of internet neutrality.
One of many premises of that transfer—as within the case of the present proposed rule changes, as properly—is that placing firms on an extended leash will uncork financial potential. Rapp threw chilly water on that concept.
“There is the old mantra that, if you loosen regulations, it will spur new investment,” Rapp opined. “I don’t buy it. These are government-created monopolies handed to publicly traded companies and they have a duty to maximize shareholder value.”
“It’s happening because a corporation named Charter asked for it,” stated Linda Miller, who chairs the 5 City Cable Advisory Committee. “That’s called Trump tactics.”
Nicely, why is the FCC proposing to change the principles to make it troublesome, if not unimaginable, for the PEGs to survive? The textual content of the proposed rule changes is nearly 32 pages lengthy and cites plenty of case regulation. The headline on the press launch from the FCC calls the rule change a “proposal to reduce barriers to infrastructure investment.”
A one-page assertion from one of many FCC commissioners, Michael O’Rielly, makes the case extra succinctly for the proposed rule changes:
First, it appropriately proposes to rely cable-related ‘in-kind’ contributions towards the cap on franchise charges. The absence of such a limitation leaves franchise authorities with the power to end-run the charge cap, making a mockery of the regulation.
And this isn’t merely a theoretical difficulty, as there are concrete situations through which franchise authorities have already abused their powers to drive these ‘contributions.’
Past violating their authorized authority, such efforts have many damaging impacts, together with instantly growing shopper prices and not directly harming the power of suppliers to deploy and supply service.
In different phrases, cities have “abused their powers” and coerced the cable corporations into paying for gadgets that ought to extra correctly be funded by others. And the franchise charges instantly improve shopper prices, not directly harming the power of cable corporations to broaden and innovate.
When contacted by The Edge, Constitution-Spectrum, the extensively unpopular cable firm that serves virtually all of Berkshire County, merely referred us to a 66-page remark posted on the proposed FCC rule changes by the Web & Tv Affiliation (previously the Nationwide Cable & Telecommunications Affiliation), a commerce group representing cable corporations and presently headed by former FCC chairman Michael Powell.
Not surprisingly, that doc “applauds the Commission’s ongoing efforts to reduce barriers to deployment of advanced cable infrastructure for broadband.” The affiliation additional says the proposed rule changes “would help rein in abusive practices and overreaching by franchising authorities, who have long ignored the five-percent cap on franchise fees and the clear limitations on their ability to regulate non-cable services offered over cable systems, to the ultimate detriment of consumers.”
Southern Berkshire residents have had a rocky relationship with Constitution from the get-go. Not lengthy after buying Time Warner in 2016, Constitution angered clients by insisting that primary cable subscribers lease digital-analog converters.
As well as, even beneath strain from high-profile Massachusetts lawmakers, Constitution has refused to restore the Springfield channels it deleted from its lineup, leaving viewers with local information from Albany and environs. And final month, indignant residents of Egremont voted to abandon an settlement with the corporate to wire the city after being notified it will value Egremont taxpayers a further $600,000.
In Massachusetts, advocates for the local access channels have turned to Sen. Edward Markey, an acknowledged chief on telecommunications points, for assist. Markey has critical considerations concerning the proposed FCC rule changes.
Markey and 10 different senators wrote an Oct. 29 letter to Pai objecting to the truth that the proposal would “alter, at the cable operators’ discretion, the terms of the local franchise agreements,” thereby placing “at risk critical funding for public, education, governmental stations, as well as broadband connections to schools and other public buildings.”
Certainly, it seems the brand new guidelines, if permitted, would merely void the relevant sections of the present franchise agreements.
Different senators signing the letter embrace Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin; Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire; Ben Cardin, D-Maryland; Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon; Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Gary Peters, D-Michigan; Ron Wyden, D-Oregon; Pat Leahy, D-Vermont; Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut; and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.
Markey stated there are greater than 1,500 public, instructional and governmental studios/operations and an estimated three,000 PEG channels within the U.S. Spiritual programming, for instance, represents 30 % of local access programming. Tens of hundreds of hours of programming is produced by veterans, seniors, the disabled and ethnic, minority and second language teams, Markey stated.
Most, if not all, PEG organizations are nonprofits. CTSB, a 501(c)(three) nonprofit, is a public-access tv station obtainable partly on-line and absolutely to Constitution-Spectrum cable TV subscribers in Nice Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Sheffield and Stockbridge. It produces not solely movies of presidency conferences however instructional exhibits reminiscent of “The Buzz,” a brand new present began by a Lee Excessive Faculty scholar.
The channel has an annual finances of roughly $400,000 that covers the salaries of 4 employees members and the debt service of its new studios and photo voltaic array at Quarry Hill Enterprise Park in Lee. Click on right here to see CTSB’s most just lately obtainable IRS 990 submitting. PCTV is a bigger operation and has an working price range of roughly $700,000. Click on right here to see PCTV’s 2016 IRS 990 submitting.
Mahoney stated CTSB has sufficient money in reserve to meet bills for less than a few yr. He stated the settlement for the 5 cities in Constitution’s southern Berkshire franchise nonetheless has seven years on it. The area served by PCTV has six years remaining.
The final day to make a proper touch upon the proposed rule changes was yesterday, however responses to the feedback shall be accepted for an additional month.
“Our constituents watch PEG channels to monitor local government proceedings, hear the latest news from nearby college campuses, and consume other locally produced programming including emergency alerts and directives,” Markey and the opposite senators stated of their letter to Pai. “We fear this proposal will result in a dire drop in resources for PEG channels throughout the nation.”
State Sen. Adam Hinds has additionally written a letter to Pai expressing his considerations concerning the proposed rule changes and the “tentative conclusions set forth” within the FCC doc that would influence the PEG channels. Click on right here to learn the complete letter. Among the many most salient passages:
“These organizations have long worked hand-in-hand with people, schools, organizations and municipalities in my district to improve important television programming to the community,” Hinds wrote.
“This coverage has included important programming such as city council meetings, school committee meetings, graduations, veterans and elderly shows, sporting events and so many other programs. It is difficult to describe the value this programming brings to our residents, our schools and our entire community.”
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