ADVOCACY GROUPS CHALLENGE FCC VOTE TO FIGHT FOR LOCAL CONTROL

Vermont Community Media Centers and their supporters are mobilizing with media centers and municipalities across the country to fight a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote that could undermine the ability of states and municipalities to set the rules for cable operators.

As part of partisan de-regulation strategy, the FCC voted 3-2 on August 1 to limit the benefits that communities can get in return for the corporate use of public property and rights-of-way in its Third Report and Order on cable franchising.

Under current law, communities have been allowed for decades to charge rent or “franchise fees” for the use of public property and rights-of-way. Cable companies use public rights-of-way to run their cables through communities. Congress capped that rent at 5 percent of gross revenues derived from cable bills. Most cable providers (though not required) pass these fees on to their subscribers.

In her dissenting vote, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called the order part of the FCC’s effort to “cut local authorities out of the picture when it comes to infrastructure.”

The order is set to take effect on September 26 and will be challenged in federal court by the Alliance for Communications Democracy, The Alliance for Community Media and a coalition of municipal organizations.

The FCC Order will now expand the definition of franchise fees to include non-monetary support (items like free cable subscriptions to schools and discounts to the elderly) for local communities and PEG Access television, even though Congress clearly intended those fees be only monetary payments.

The new rules would allow cable companies to assign market values to these benefits, charge the amount back to local communities, and pocket the money. So, in effect, the cable companies will be allowed to pay their rent for use of public lands with “in-kind” donations, and the local governments will have no say in whether this is acceptable or not.

According to Kevin Christopher, President of the Vermont Access Network, “We won’t know the impact on Vermont’s 25 community media centers until we learn how cable companies choose to interpret this order, but we’re preparing for dramatic shifts in funding and operations.”

“It’s especially discouraging that the FCC is preempting local control at a time when local media is more important than ever to the fabric of our communities,” Christopher continued. “The State of Vermont decided long ago that community media centers were essential to democracy, part of the public good, and should be supported.”

The State has shown its commitment to keeping community media centers strong by creating the Public, Educational, Government (PEG) Study Committee. The committee is charged with identifying potential funding sources that would keep the community media centers financially sound into the future.

The Vermont Access Network (VAN) is participating in the Study Committee with Vermont Legislators and other public officials and stakeholders to look into ways to keep the state’s community media centers, and the services they provide to the community, sustainable. The Study Committee held a public hearing on October 21st at the Statehouse in Montpelier to gather feedback from Vermonters about potential funding streams that could be made available to keep our community media centers strong.

VAN is a membership organization supporting the state’s 25 Public, Educational and Government (PEG) Access community media centers. Members are non-profit organizations that operate over 80 full-time, commercial-free channels, which produce more than 18,000 hours of hyper-local content per year, and employ nearly 200 Vermonters.