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Editorial columns

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Public access TV suffering from telecom ‘reform' bill

Those of us in the Public, Educational and Government Access TV community believed that House Bill 1279 (transferring cable franchising from municipalities to state control) would not only fail to address concerns we had prior to its passage, but also would cause irreparable harm to every PEG access center in Indiana. State legislators assured us this would not happen. Now, two years after the bill’s passage, those trepidations have materialized.

On Aug. 28, 2007, Comcast sent letters to municipalities in northwest Indiana claiming there was no provision within HB 1279 requiring the company to provide production/playback facilities, even though these had been negotiated in good faith for more than 25 years on the local level. Comcast then unrealistically demanded that Hammond, Portage, Mishawaka, Valparaiso, Plymouth, Goshen, South Bend and Elkhart had 30 days to find housing for the old facilities, hire staff and develop a management organization. As of Dec. 15, 2007, Comcast stopped providing playback of local programming in these cities.

Brighthouse Cable in Richmond deployed its Triple Play package and subsequently downgraded the video signal for live location shoots and city council meetings. After almost nine months, this situation has yet to be resolved.

In Bloomington and Indianapolis, AT&T proposed a video platform called U-verse to deliver the PEG Access channels at a lesser signal quality (similar to Windows Media 9) than is provided for local commercial TV stations. We fail to see why PEG Access signals are any less valuable to a community. Worse yet, the channels’ placement, in AT&T’s proposal, will have all PEG Access channels located on a submenu (channel 900), which is difficult to navigate and complicated to find.

Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have failed to deliver the capital money for equipment replacement required by HB 1279. Bloomington, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne are affected by this failure. Video providers are questioning language in HB 1279 and are threatening 36 years of local PEG access growth.

Lastly, members of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, which is responsible for administering HB 1279, do not feel they have the authority to arbitrate issues between municipalities and cable TV providers. Their response has consistently been that any PEG Access center or city having difficulty with any video provider must seek legal council and approach the courts for relief. This unfairly places fiscal obligations on already strapped PEG centers and cities, which when faced with arduous monetary obligations will be forced to accept limited and substandard service. In essence, the state is balking at providing a service in the new franchising agreement that municipalities provided in the old franchising agreements.

It is clear that HB 1279 has not and will not meet the local franchising agreements previously negotiated with cable providers. HB 1279 is being used to eradicate the PEG Access throughout the state by gutting the local information infrastructure that was in place. HB 1279 took historic local oversight and involvement away for those most affected by it.

Erik S. Möllberg is a former national board member of the Alliance for Community Media and currently chairs the Indiana Chapter of the Alliance for Community Media. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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