The Early Years: 1996 – 1999
The Vermont Access Network had its beginnings when the executive directors of several PEG Access organizations got together in 1996 to discuss what to do about Adelphia’s certificate of public good (CPG), due to expire in 1999. The question was how PEG access leaders might ensure that their organizations’ concerns and the needs of their respective communities might best be met during the next eleven-year term of Adelphia’s CPG, if the Public Service Board were to renew it.
Five access management organizations (AMOs) decided to form a group called the 2010 Committee, and they invited the other eighteen existing AMOs to join in discussions regarding the future of PEG Access in Vermont. The three Burlington AMOs [Chittenden Community TV (CCTV) Channel 17, Vermont Community Access Media (VCAM) and the Regional Educational Television Network (RETN)], Rutland Regional Community TV (RRCTV) and Catamount Access Television (CAT-TV in Bennington) formed the initial core leadership of the 2010 Committee.
Adelphia Cable had a contentious time with Vermont regulators almost from the moment in the mid-90’s when the company acquired the two largest locally-owned and operated cable companies: Mountain Cable Company in the northern part of the State, and Better TV in Bennington. Adelphia had purchased other independent cable systems around the State; however, all were operating under separate CPGs and expiring at different times. But these two systems’ CPGs were the largest, the PSB consolidated them into one Docket (No. 6101/6223) and the 2010 Committee was granted party status and participated fully in the proceedings before the Public Service Board.
The 2010 Committee’s testimony, coordinated and written by Lauren-Glenn Davitian, Michael Valentine, Greg Epler Wood, David Cranmer, Scott Campitelli, Dick Thodal, Darrell Thompson and Sam Press, was aided by attorney Ed Amidon. The Committee had hoped that attorney Sam Press of Burlington would have been able to represent the group and build upon his successful intervention on behalf of the City of Bennington several years earlier—resulting in a quarter million dollar settlement for PEG access from Adelphia—however, misfortune struck Sam in the form of a debilitating stroke that required rehabilitation before he was able to regain much of his mobility and speech. He had to give up his practice, but remained—and remains even to this day—a model of ethical, public interest legal thinking and resolve.
The 2010 Committee was the only party exclusively testifying to protect and expand the responsibility of cable television companies to provide PEG Access services. The Department of Public Service was generally supportive of the Committee’s testimony.
Several important protections to PEG Access were developed within Docket 6101/6223: precedents representing the cable-related communication needs of Vermonters that had been unanticipated in the promulgation of the original 1991 PSB Rule 8, Vermont’s first comprehensive regulation of cable television that established many of the essential ground rules of PEG access under which we operate today. It was these protections, in the form of conditions imposed upon Adelphia Cable in its renewed CPG dated April 28, 2000, that firmed up a cable operator’s obligation to provide, among other things, channels, annual funding and live remote origination capability for PEG access in each of its operating systems. The 2010 Committee was proud of its accomplishments in that Docket and, in retrospect it was aided to some extent by Adelphia’s recalcitrance with regard to its behavior before the Board, its service performance and violations of its CPGs. The Docket was an opportunity for the Department of Public Service and the Public Service Board to understand and appreciate how a healthy and well-supported PEG access operation can contribute to the general public good, and it also brought together all Vermont’s PEG access practitioners for the first time since PEG access came under state regulation and was being managed, or on its way to being managed, exclusively by independent nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporations, not by the cable operator.
The Birth of VAN
Once the 2010 Committee had fulfilled its purpose, there was momentum for the AMOs to continue their dialog and cooperation. By the end of 2000, the 2010 Committee became the Vermont Access Network, with Dave Cranmer elected as its first president. The next year it filed its articles of association and bylaws with the Vermont Secretary of State, and was officially incorporated on September 10, 2001.
Within a year, it became clear amidst reports of security violations that Adelphia Cable was about to have trouble escaping bankruptcy, let alone keep hold of its cable systems. And by July, 2006, that was exactly what happened.
But in the meantime, the focus of VAN as well as the Public Service Board had moved to the amending of Rule 8. This was needed not only to accommodate the changes in federal law and the cable industry as it moved toward broadband Internet delivery, but also because of inadequacies in the Rule exposed by the Vermont’s maturing PEG access management, the new PEG access-related conditions imposed upon Adelphia in its CPG, and the need for AMOs to avoid being ghettoized from mainstream commercial cable and share in new digital applications and other technological applications, both anticipated and unanticipated, as they came along and became accepted and demanded by subscribers and the public.
VAN Participates in Major Transition: Adelphia to Comcast
The years 2003 through 2005 were a busy time for VAN, as not only was the Public Service Board conducting a Rulemaking to amend Rule 8, but also Comcast and Warner Cable had jointly filed with the Board as the “Holdco Corporation” to transfer Adelphia’s CPG to that interim body until the federal bankruptcy court and the SEC sorted out how Adelphia’s assets around the country would be divided up between Comcast and Warner.
To make sure PEG access was properly represented in both regulatory venues, VAN, made up of its volunteer board of AMO executive directors, collected ‘legal defense’ monies, in addition to dues, from its 25 member AMOs. Because annual budgets of these AMOs then varied from about $50,000 to over $400,000 (median around $100,000), a sliding scale was developed that continues to be the norm today for annual dues and special fees. When the PSB opened its rulemaking, VAN easily obtained party status and engaged the services of attorney Doug Marden (Ed Amidon having retired) and consultant Greg Epler Wood (having left CAT-TV and moving to Burlington) to develop positions and file testimony, interrogatories and briefs. Similarly, VAN prepared to intervene in the Holdco/Adelphia docket.
It was important, as well as practical for regulatory expediency, that the amending of Rule 8 be completed before a CPG was issued to Holdco. The Public Service Board had dealt similarly with a major proceeding in 1990 when it was faced with the petition by the Town of Bennington to collect years of back PEG access fees it claimed it was owed from Better TV, since acquired by Adelphia Cable. There was a cable television Rulemaking underway (the State’s first) that began in 1989, and the Board likely found it best to establish basic PEG access principles and requirements in a Rule before it could properly focus its attention to deciding on Bennington’s complaint. Cable television regulatory Rule 8, a full third of which dealt with PEG access, went into effect on July 1, 1991, and the Bennington proceedings were settled by the end of 1992.
The Vermont Access Network, including its predecessor the 2010 Committee, and even before that the grassroots advocates that worked hard to promote community media from its beginnings in 1984 through the State’s first PEG access regulation in 1991, have essentially made Vermont the model of PEG access regulatory protection to which all other communities in the United States aspire.
VAN Today & Tomorrow
Today, VAN continues to monitor industry and regulatory trends that affect community media, and provide support and a common platform where its member AMOs can seek and receive advice, support and protection from forces that would seek to erode its vitality and ability to serve the noncommercial, nonprofit communication needs of its schools, municipalities, community groups, libraries and private citizens.
The telephone industry was not traditionally regarded as a competitor by cable television providers, and vice versa. However, as each began to upgrade their technologies to carry Internet, telephone and video, rather than competition resulting in lower rates, expanded service territories and more public benefits to communities, telecommunication lobbyists were able to convince many states that local franchising was burdensome and laws were passed—called ‘video franchising’—that made it easier for competitors to encroach into cable television’s existing dense lucrative markets, maintain high rates, drop funding to PEG access and continue to ignore rural areas of the country.
Our system of funding of Community Media Access Centers is threatened, not by the video franchising legislation against which Vermont was rendered immune by our strong regulation, but rather by the migration of cable subscribers over to the Internet. PEG Access is funded as a percentage of cable TV customer’s revenue, and as these drop, so does the sustaining PEG Access funding.
Federal telecommunication law, which had its roots in the telegraph and early telephone days, hasn’t kept pace with the sea change in digital broadband technology and the lobbying strength of the enormous telecom industry. The fact that the industry was able to render immune from regulation “digital information services,” differently from telephone and cable television signals –all three of which increasingly travel through the same wire or fiber—signals this power. The unintended consequence of giving legislative and regulatory concessions to companies promising to deploy high-speed broadband into underserved areas was the erosion of a community’s local authority over its rights-of-way and its ability to require some baseline public protections and non-commercial benefits to its people. And ironically, most of the broadband deployment into un-served and underserved areas of our country has not been a result of these concessions, but other costly government tax-payer funded subsidies, grants and loans to those same industries.
As of early 2013, industry observers believe it is just a matter of time until Congress begins the task of consolidating or radically modifying (or might we characterize, further weakening) the three “Titles” of telecom law: Telephone, Cable Television and The Internet. Vermont will not be as immune as it has been over the years if federal law further empowers new competitive entrants who don’t have to provide the same public benefits, such as PEG access, over their Internet-driven systems that bypass cable television regulation.
An important defense against the wasting away of Vermont’s extraordinary and highly-appreciated system of Community Media Access Centers is the Vermont Access Network. As it monitors industry activities and assists local CMACs around the state to maintain and improve their service and outreach to their constituent governments, schools, libraries and nonprofits, VAN will encourage the voices of public opinion to be heard. The numbers show that Vermonters recognize the value and importance of PEG Access, and if they see these anchor institutions threatened, they can be mobilized at the grassroots to insist that there must be free public space allocated and funded on our telecommunication systems. PEG Access must be held up as a model for free, non-commercial public benefits that should be required of all telecom service providers, including cable TV-centric, telephone-centric, Internet-centric or satellite-centric delivery systems. VAN will continue to empower, support and strengthen local AMO efforts to help make this a reality.