Protecting the public’s channels

KUC News

No AT&T Takeover of DirecTV Without PEG Equal Treatment

June 6, 2014

CAN TV and other advocates are calling for AT&T's bid to take over DirectTV be
conditioned on it rectifying the long overdue problem of discriminatory
treatment of public access channels. Communications Daily reports: 

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Channel 99 Programming

AT&T/DirecTV Would Provide Opportunity for FCC to Negotiate Conditions for PEG, Say Advocates

The proposed AT&T takeover of DirecTV is an opportunity for the FCC to impose conditions on the telco requiring it to change how it provides public, educational and government channel programming, said PEG channel advocates in interviews this week.

Groups like the Alliance for Community Media are still waiting for the FCC to act on its 2009 petition urging it to declare AT&T's offering of PEG channels on its U-verse platform inadequate. The Media Bureau had no comment on whether it's continuing to review the petition. The benefits of viewing PEG channels on AT&T U-Verse include viewing channels in one convenient location, a spokesman said.

The $67 billion AT&T/DirecTV deal is an opportunity for the FCC to address some issues important to local government and PEG operators, like channel locations and classification of IPTV as a cable service, said Michael Bradley, a Bradley Hagan attorney who represents local governments on cable franchising matters. It has been difficult for local governments to deal with an uncertain classification of IPTV and "whether that service falls under the Cable Act," he said.

In its review of the transaction, the commission can impose a condition to help PEG, said Barbara Popovic, executive director of Chicago Access Network Television. CAN TV programming is available on U-Verse. It's crucial that the public’s channels are as easy to access and use as other channels, she said. The FCC should seek a condition on the deal "that would bring these channels back into parity with other channels on AT&T’s system," she said. Those channels are entitled to audio and video signal quality and functionality that is equivalent to other channels, she added.

AT&T said it's helping to enhance public service through U-Verse "by removing the geographic and technological barriers that sometimes separate communities and neighbors, and limit the distribution of important information, news and entertainment." Providing the programming on Channel 99 offers viewers the ability to watch neighboring cities' PEG channels all in one convenient location, a spokesman said. Because PEG programming from  multiple municipalities in a metropolitan area can be viewed, "the service brings them together in an easy-to-remember location on the dial," he said.

There weren't hesitations to provide PEG programming to video subscribers, but there were delays due to lack of resources and expenses that the AT&T system imposed upon PEG centers that weren’t imposed by other providers, said Gerard Lederer, a Best Best attorney who represents municipalities in franchise negotiations. The company was "granted a fast track to franchising, and that fast track in some states resulted in the loss of PEG support and PEG channels," he said. The return on investment "hasn’t been any increase in broadband deployments," he said. Lederer didn't take a stance on whether PEG conditions should be imposed on the transaction.

ACM would like to revisit its outstanding FCC petition, said Mike Wassenaar, ACM public policy advocate. The federal government "should hold them to the same types of conditions that they hold other corporations regarding how they treat PEG," he said. As new chairman, Tom Wheeler made a commitment "to review what the public says they care about ... so we’re going to revisit the issue," he said.

The commission has to seriously examine the delayed petition, Popovic said: "There’s been

no movement, and that is inexcusable." The FCC, under new leadership, can take a fresh look at how it can ensure that its commitment to localism and diversity in media is realized through acting on items like the petition, she said. Local programming should be part of the commitment to innovation at the FCC and at the major corporations "that are being held accountable for these great mergers that they’re requesting," she said.

While DBS companies like DirecTV have some public interest obligations, they don’t have cable franchising obligations, Bradley said. The Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act requires DBS providers to set aside channel capacity for noncommercial programming of an  ducational or informational nature, FCC said (http://bit.ly/ScUOIQ).

"Maybe it’s time to look at treating satellite companies more like cable operators, especially with competition continuing to dwindle in this marketplace," Bradley said. Perhaps satellite companies "can start funding PEG TV with a gross revenue percentage fee," he added. The notion that every public access channel in the country could have its own satellite channel isn't realistic, said Gretjen Clausing, executive director at Philadelphia Public Access Corp.

"If there was a way that some of the media produced nationally could have some exposure via satellite, that would be really exciting."

— Kamala Lane (klane@warren-news.com)