Comcast Files Appeal Against The Vermont Access Network

August 30, 2017

VERMONT ACCESS NETWORK (VAN)

Comcast Federal Appeal Briefing 8/29/17

Re: Civil Action 5:17-CV-161 | Filed Against the Vermont Public Utility Commission for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief

In its continued fight against free speech and open networks, Comcast has filed a federal suit against the Vermont Public Utility Commission (Vermont PUC) for seeking to modernize public access and extend cable service in Vermont.

On August 28, 2017, Comcast  filed for federal relief ("declaratory and injunctive") from the Vermont PUC’s  January Order and CPG (Certificate of Public Good) in Docket 8301. The state’s largest cable operator opposes conditions that require line extensions and upgrades to the delivery of public, educational and government (PEG) access  in Vermont. Comcast first appealed these conditions at the PUC in February 2017. The PUC categorically asserted its authority and justification for the its conditions in July and considers the CPG to now be in effect.

Undaunted, Comcast brought its legal case to federal court, claiming, again, that the state lacks jurisdiction to require certain CPG conditions and is "trampling the First Amendment". Asserting its free market and free speech rights ("like other citizens"), Comcast claims that Vermont's CPG conditions for the next 11 years are “arbitrary, unprecedented and will harm local cable subscribers with millions of dollars of increased cost”.​

​In short, Comcast says the PUC Order (Docket 8301) is "procedurally and substantively unlawful​"​,  will impede competitive offering of cable services, ​efforts to ​retain customers and will be harmful​ to current subscribers because of the tremendous cost pass through.​ See Civil Action 5:17-CV-161

In its federal filing, Comcast opposes the following PEG requirements:

- Interactive Program Guide or IPG (Condition 22(3)) that allow for cable subscribers to search, find, store and manipulate PEG programs like all others;

- Remote Origination Sites that allow for local live event coverage (Condition 21(b) and (c));

-  The ability of AMOs to broadcast simultaneous live PEG programming (Conditions 24 and 30); and,

- INet (Conditions 50-55), uncontroversial holdover from the previous CPG that would enable statewide program sharing (live and achived) at market rates.

Comcast is also opposed to line extensions (Conditions 13(7), 33 and 34).  ​

Vermont Access Network (VAN) first reported that Comcast was not complying with its first Vermont CPG. In the case for renewal, two years in the making, VAN has continued to argue in favor of modernizing public access and brining Vermont communities into the digital age. VAN’s proposed conditions are based on community needs and interests “taking costs into account”.

VAN’s proposed findings and conditions were largely adopted by the PUC in its January 2017 Order.

VAN has amply demonstrated (and will continue to argue) that:

  • The Vermont PUC has authority to required CPG conditions and upgrades from Comcast;

  • Comcast is out of compliance with its previous 11 year CPG and must upgrade PEG features;

  • Cable rate payers and the public favor upgrades such as access to the Interactive Program Guide, improved quality HD PEG channels, and community drops for live programming;

  • Comcast subscribers think they pay too much for cable and think Comcast should bear the cost of PEG improvements, while Comcast chooses not to pass these costs on; and,

  • Comcast has agreed to such conditions in franchises across the country, including Philadelphia and Seattle.

It is important to also point out that federal courts are inclined to recognize the authority and ruling of local regulatory authorities.

VAN in Action: We are working with national and local legal team to mount a response to Comcast’s federal suit. We think it is important to take this up, despite the significant legal cost of $100,000 to be largely borne by Vermont’s rate payers.

The future of PEG access in Vermont is at stake. In order to remain relevant and able to meet community needs and interests, PEG channels must bring high quality signals of live and archived programs to the public.  In order to avoid the “digital Siberia”, Vermont PEG channels must able to be found and accessed via the Interactive Program Guide (IPG) and set top box that controls the entire cable experience.

This is an important opportunity to mobilize Vermont and possibly others to the cause of open networks and access to the set top box. Effective mobilization will help with visibility, moral suasion and fundraising.

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