AT&T Skirting Law That Requires Local Cable-Access Stations
By Bob Fischer, Business Columnist -- Naperville Sun
For those of us with cable TV, a benefit is access to PEG channels. These broadcast outlets, negotiated into existence when the cable companies received their franchises, provide an opportunity for local government to communicate with residents; educational programs to be developed and transmitted; and community-related content to be created and shared. Public, Educational and Governmental channels in Naperville include NCTV17 and WCNC, the city's government access channel.
Looking at its mission statement, NCTV "provides a voice to educate, inform, preserve, entertain, assist, and celebrate one another through diverse programming that reflects the character and spirit of our community."
According to Dan Di Santo, assistant to the city manager, WCNC is a "tool for transparent government" as it works to provide residents with the latest government news that affects their lives. Both channels stand out among cable fare as something uniquely local and focused on the needs and circumstances of Naperville residents.
As AT&T, the latest "wired" TV provider rides into town, the ability for its subscribers to view these local outlets becomes more difficult. While WOW and Comcast have allocated channel slots (6 and 10 respectively for WCNC, 17 for NCTV), the folks from the phone company created a community access menu on Channel 99 where potential viewers must scroll through a list of regional choices to seek out their local channels. While AT&T sees this as a means to carry more content from more communities, Di Santo worries that "drive-by channel surfers are eliminated" and fewer folks will tune in to WCNC if watching requires a search.
This is not just a local issue, but one playing out nationally wherever AT&T deploys its U-verse technology. While Illinois' Cable and Video Competition law of 2007 requires companies with state video franchises to deliver PEG channels with equivalent signal quality and functionality to that of commercial channels, many communities feel AT&T is coming up short and are seeking legal remedies to gain compliance.
Earlier this month the board of the Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation wrote to Attorney General Lisa Madigan requesting an update on her investigation into this perceived violation of the statute. In their letter, the board stated that "AT&T's skirting of the letter and spirit of the law, through their relegation of this programming to the menu of "Channel 99," may serve to deprive Naperville residents of these valuable and informative broadcasts."
At issue is not just difficulty finding local programming, but also that it cannot be programmed for recording, closed captioned or identified through the channel guide.
While AT&T says "technical limitations" are the rationale for relegating PEG to the Channel 99 choice list, other, possibly more cynical, observers see it as a business decision to keep the valuable real estate of numbered channels available for commercial broadcasting.
According to Di Santo, citizen surveys show residents are watching WCNC. The city has rewarded this increased viewership with more friendly and informative programming, including live and rebroadcasted municipal meetings, news and information on city events, public service information, and content from the Illinois Channel. The Homeowners Confederation has used both WCNC and NCTV17 to share its candidate forums with the electorate.
There is value in broader choice, but also an expectation of compliance with the letter and spirit of the law. This issue appears far from settled.
Bob Fischer is vice president of the Naperville Area Homeowners Confederation.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org