Public Service Board Requires Comcast to Step Up Support of PEG Access
In a major win for cable TV consumers and the people of Vermont, the Public Service Board delivered its long awaited ruling on Comcast’s Certificate of Public Good on Friday, January 13, 2017. The Board determined that Comcast’s renewed CPG, good through January 2027, is “reasonable to meet future cable-related community interests and needs” by modifying and adding several conditions that the Company had either omitted or opposed in its initial proposal to the state. The decision lays the groundwork for modernizing PEG access and delivers a clear statement that PEG access is an important community good and should remain relevant as cable technology changes.
Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access organizations, represented by the Vermont Access Network (VAN), see the Board’s Docket 8301 ruling as a substantial victory for free speech, open government and community cohesion.
“We are very pleased with the Board’s Order. The new CPG lays the groundwork for continued important and necessary work by VAN members over the next 11 years as we modernize community media in Vermont. The Board’s decision is a clear statement that PEG access is an important community good and should remain relevant as cable technology changes,” said Lisa Byer, Executive Director of CAT-TV and leader of the VAN working group that mounted the case on behalf of 26 community media centers across Vermont.
In addition to key conditions on line extensions and customer service requirements, the PSB Order clearly sets out conditions and principles for Comcast going forward that are based on fundamental propositions painstakingly advanced by VAN in Docket 8301. The Board adopted almost all of VAN’s proposed findings, contrary to Comcast’s position throughout the case.
“Vermont’s PEG access organizations serve a vital community function supported by thousands of hours of locally produced programs, training programs for young and old and the many ways that we open the doors to local and state government--not to mention the hundreds of pro-PEG comments voiced through the community needs assessments in this Docket. PEG access is considered to be a vital community service that promotes the common good,” said Rob Chapman, Director of ORCA-Media, based in Montpelier.
In an important statement about the value of PEG access to the state of Vermont and the importance of providing public access to commercial features of the cable network, the Board wrote:
“The rapidly changing nature of cable system technology and the emerging digital transition of cable video delivery services over the next eleven years will have effects on AMOs and the delivery of PEG content. As Comcast introduces and expands the use of new technology in Vermont for commercial objectives, there is a reasonable expectation that community needs and interests related to PEG access should also be served.”
Key PEG Conditions Supported by the Board
Stating the the interactive program guide is the “most important PEG outreach condition”, the Board Order requires Comcast to provide Vermont’s access management organizations and their channels with access to the interactive program guide, stating that Comcast has been out of compliance with this existing condition for several years, leaving more than 45 PEG channels without the ability to tell cable viewers what programs are airing at any given time. Comcast has cited the cost of providing basic access to the guides as upwards of $3 million. Given the Company’s net profit in 2015 of $59 million, the Board believes that Comcast can afford to be in compliance with this condition.
The Board did not require Comcast to activate HD channels at this time, but set a placeholder of two years, reporting requirements, and a mechanism with which to reconsider this question and advised Comcast to negotiate on a contract basis with HD ready AMOs. The Board used strong language to advise Comcast to negotiate HD channels with “HD-ready” AMO’s during upcoming contract negotiations.
The Board clarified the Company’s obligation to activate local origination sites (for the cablecasting of live programming at community locations) and their obligation to cover the cost for standard installations. The Board slapped Comcast’s hand for redefining its obligations under the current CPG: “Technology constraints that emerge from a cable operator’s provision of additional commercial services do not excuse the cable operator from meeting its obligations under its CPG nor do they allow such operator to redefine its responsibilities under the CPG.” (p.42).
On the question of statewide connectivity and a statewide PEG access channel, the Board agrees with VAN “that the objectives for a statewide access channel that provides sufficient interconnection bandwidth to meet future community needs has not been fully achieved through the Vermont Media Exchange”, a statewide program sharing network. The Board also ruled that if a statewide PEG channel is to be viable, it must be connected to PEG AMOs and key remote sites across the state. The Board recognized the value of an INet as a means to share and transport content for a “leveraging certain local PEG services for the future of PEG access in Vermont”. (INet Conditions are found at conditions 50 through 55). The Board stated that many unresolved issues remain to be answered, including designation of statewide AMO, to be decided at future proceedings.
In other conditions, the Board:
Retained existing channel reassignment language as it “provides some protection for AMOs and the public that might not otherwise be obtained in future contract negotiations.” (p.36).
Continued to enable AMOs to submit “spike funding” capital requests twice during the CPG in support of the “rapidly changing technological environment” that AMO’s must respond to promptly and effectively (p.59).
The Board adopted VAN’s recommendation for Comcast to continue to proactively reach out to municipal leaders annually and to inform community institutions of local origination site availability every two years.
The Board also stood behind basic principles put forward by VAN and opposed by Comcast:
Comcast is subject to the EMCO criteria, the base line criteria used for assessing cable television contracts in vermont.
VAN’s proposals are within the jurisdiction of the State.
Community Needs Assessment support for PEG access uses and modernization are a key driver in the Board’s decision.
The value of PEG access cannot be based on viewership alone, as community meetings, youth media training and free speech opportunities serve a broader public good.
The Board went further to spell out its position in support of VAN’s requests and PEG access in general:
“As both Congress and the State of Vermont have recognized, PEG channels can help meet the substantial and compelling interests of a democratic society in enabling first-hand knowledge of local governmental decision making and events, in providing diverse and local sources of information and ideas, and in helping create an informed and educated citizenry. The success of AMOs in creating a vibrant network of PEG channels in Vermont is measured not by their day-to-day audiences but by how effectively they meet the needs of citizens in their communities by providing coverage of local meetings of interest to them (even if that interest is very occasional or only a one-time occurrence related to a particular local decision that affects them), by generating more informed conversations about local issues and greater public participation in local affairs, by presenting educational content that expands minds and opportunities, and by broadening perspectives through the exposure to diverse sources of information and ideas.”
The Vermont Access Network (VAN) is a professional membership organization [IRS 501(c)(6)] established to promote an interest in, and the effective operation and advancement of, our states’ 25 Public, Educational and Government (PEG) Access Management Organizations (AMOs). Our Mission is to further AMO goals, foster free speech, enable interconnectivity and facilitate community discourse through the use of current Cable and Internet technologies.