Proposed FCC rule changes to preempt local government from regulating or imposing fees related to non-cable services provided by cable companies, among other provisions, have raised alarm among both local access providers and town officials.
The changes would allow cable operators to treat funding for cable-related costs as “in-kind” donations, allowing them to deduct an undefined amount from monies that traditionally have gone to community media. This rule change would eliminate a major source of funding from WHCA and could result in community media centers closing their doors in every community across the country.
“I think it’s very short-sighted,” said Whitman Hanson Community Access TV Executive Director Eric Dresser.
“What we do here — and what access centers across the state do — is hyper-local, and it’s essential,” WHCA-TV Access Operations Coordinator Kevin Tocci says. “It is your source if you want to know what’s going on with local government … we provide video on demand on YouTube.”
Local public, educational and government (PEG) access programming is funded by franchising through the local community’s issuing authority — generally the board of selectmen — with a rate paid to cover the “burden of taking up space on [utility] poles” via the cable portion of the cable company’s income.
Both select boards and town administrators in Whitman and Hanson have filed letters with the FCC against the proposal. Both trade organizations to which WHCA-TV belongs — MassAccess, and the Alliance for Community Media on the federal level — have also filed lengthy comments against the proposal, citing several legal precedents.
The deadline for that filing was midnight, Thursday, Nov. 15. The deadline for reply comments is midnight, Friday, Dec. 14.
Those comments would likely be limited to response to previously filed comments.
“They (the FCC) want to be able to charge back, through municipalities, for what they consider in-kind services,” Dresser said. “You’re allowing them onto your poles and you’re basically having an exchange of fee for that. They’re trying to negotiate that back, saying, ‘We’ve got your channels on our spectrum and if we didn’t have you there, we’d have somebody else there.’”
The concern is that cable access organizations are not sure what the value of channels is going to be assigned, according to Dresser.
“We don’t know what things they want to charge back, we don’t know what things they could charge back,” he said. “That’s the concern.”
“We don’t know how aggressive they are going to be,” Dresser said. “If they’re just looking to stop giving away free cable boxes, well then that’s not a huge deal. But if they’re looking to assign a value to each of these channels, that’s a much bigger deal.”
That raises the specter of threats to replace local access channels with another QVC-type channel.
Small cell wireless is also a concern as phones head to 5G from the current 4G capacity. Instead of out-of-the-way cell towers, 5G will most likely be accommodated on “every third telephone pole down the main thoroughfare.” Dresser said he feels the cable proposal is designed to finance the 5G upgrades, for which the cable companies do not want to pay.
That had been governed by cable contract provisions for stringing cable wires on utility poles, which are now being classified by cable carriers as barriers to service.
Dresser said that, while it may pave the way for advancements to cell phone technology, it overlooks local programming services provided since 1984.
“It think it would be just absolutely outrageous to lose the ability to turn on local cable,” Whitman resident Richard Rosen, who was a Selectman when the town’s cable service was chosen, said on a Nov. 16 installment of Monday Night Talk with Kevin Tocci on WATD. “What you people all do and what local cable does for people is amazing. … To think that it could all go away so easily is just wrong.”
On Monday, Nov. 12, Dresser joined Director of Marketing and Educational Services Carol McGilvary of PACTV and Marshfield Community Television’s Executive Director Jonathan Grabowski on WATD. The three are also MassAccess board members.
Becoming a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit in 2005, WHCA produces coverage of local government as well as local programs created by residents, such as Rosen’s award-winning show “Buzz Around Bees.” It sends its production truck to local sports games.
“We’re in a lot of places and we love the work that we do,” Dresser said during the WATD discussion.
Celebrating 10 years in operation this year, Marshfield Community Television produces 17 local shows as well as an educational program involving 150 students at Marshfield High, according to Grabowski. It provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of eight government bodies.
“It’s going to impact everyone,” Grabowski said of the proposed FCC rule change. “It’s going to significantly reduce funding or it’s going to close down access centers.”
PACTV has served Duxbury, Kingston, Pembroke and Plymouth for 21 years according to McGilvary doing the same kind of government coverage and education and locally-produced programs as Marshfield — as well as annual coverage of the Plymouth Thanksgiving Day parade. PACTV also produces news programs and “Breaking the Cycle,” about the opioid crisis.
While she said there has been a noticeable reduction in cable consumers in favor of “cutting the cable,” there are still large populations of people who still want cable television.
For more information, visit massaccess.org/fcc or whca.tv/fcc.