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AT&T's plan for public access on its U-verse video service -- which the company calls "innovative" and critics call inadequate -- is being challenged in Illinois.
In other states, AT&T has relegated hundreds of public, educational, and governmental (PEG) stations to submenus on a single Channel 99, where accessing a particular channel is cumbersome and time-consuming, and picture and sound quality are on a par with YouTube, access advocates say. (This video demonstrate how Channel 99 works in California.)
The company's push takes advantage of new state video franchising laws which have threatened public access. In many states, including Indiana and Michigan, cable access centers are losing funding and closing.
But Illinois's video franchise law, passed last year, provides much stronger protections for consumers and for public access.
A few municipalities here are hooking up with Channel 99, but many others have asked AT&T to abide by the law's requirement that PEG channels be provided "at equivalent visual and audio quality and equivalent functionality" with commercial channels. The Municipal Mayors Caucus has asked the Attorney General's office to investigate whether Channel 99 violates the law.
AT&T reportedly withdrew an application submitted to the City of Chicago in January to provide video service here, after a city response noted the legal requirements for equivalent signal quality and functionality.
Some cities and towns have also objected to AT&T demands that they pay for equipment modifications out of public access fees they will assess when service is established. The law says the service provider is responsible for such modifications.
PEG is currently available in 13 communities out of over 230 in Illinois now being served by U-verse, said Andrew Ross of AT&T.
"AT&T has been working very closely with numerous communities and has shown great flexibility and cooperation in making this process as streamlined as possible," Ross said in an email. "We are working with every community that requests PEG."
"Some communities put a lot of money -- in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year -- into public programming, and they don't want it to look like YouTube," said Stuart Chapman, a telecommunications consultant for local governments. "It demeans the value of the programming."
Public access stations on Channel 99 have a much smaller picture and about a quarter the resolution of commercial channels, according to Keep Us Connected, a coalition of public and nonprofit access providers and supporters (of which Community Media Workshop is a member). Video "stutters" when used for motion, such as dance or sports.
Ross said AT&T has enhanced picture quality and increased resolution. "We believe [the picture] is as good or better than the cable product," said Ross. He stressed the benefit of accessing PEG programming from a variety of communities.
"As an additional benefit it would be great," said Barbara Popovic of CAN-TV. "But not as a substitute." She notes that many access centers already stream programming on the internet.
Unlike commercial channels on U-verse, Channel 99 doesn't allow closed captioning or DVR recording, critics point out. "The system is also unable to provide emergency alerts required by federal regulations," said David Bennett of the mayors caucus.
Advocates say the use of several submenus to reach PEG stations is distinctly different from the treatment of commercial channels.
"You're not going to channel surf to PEG stations," said Gary White, communications manager for Wheaton. "You have to look for them -- and then you have to wait for them." He characterized the system as "separate and unequal treatment of PEG."
"I know for a fact that a lot of local access viewing is by people who stumble across it," said Peter Collins, IT manager for Geneva and president of the Illinois Municipal Broadband Communications Association. "They say, there's that city council of mine -- and they watch."
One issue could be severe bandwidth limitations for U-verse, Collins said. "They're trying to cram phone, internet, and video service into a much smaller bandwidth" than traditional cable systems have, Collins said. "They've only got 25 [megabits] of bandwidth, and one HD video feed can take 10 megs."
Bennett said the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus has "many member municipalities concerned that AT&T is not abiding by the intent of the new state law, and we're hopeful that the Attorney General's office will take the steps necessary to bring AT&T to the table so [issues] can be resolved through negotiations, or perhaps take other steps, including legal action."