Photo copyright Blair Seitz
A nonpartisan grassroots civics organization
 
TESTIMONY TO HOUSE CONSUMER AFFAIRS COMMITTEE, AUGUST 22, 2006
WITH RESPECT TO HB 2880 (CABLE CHOICE AND COMPETITION ACT)

I am Suzanne Broughton, president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh. The League supports broadcast of local public events and information on local public access channels that are part of all franchise agreements between municipalities and cable companies and that provide for assistance, technical help, training and studio space to citizens producing such programs.

HB 2880 changes the rules under which cable TV has operated for 30 years. Cable companies use local public rights of way to run their wires. In return they have paid fees to municipalities for this right. Under FCC rules, cable companies are required to provide a percentage of their revenue from subscription fees to provide community access to the cable system. Local communities and community groups including the League of Women Voters have benefited from this arrangement - making it possible to broadcast community meetings, education videos, and forums for candidates for local office, something which would never occur if we were completely dependent on the traditional media. In the name of fostering competition and lowering rates for consumers, telephone companies seeking to enter the cable market would change the franchising system.

Among our membership we have people who are current and former elected officials, both on municipal governing bodies and on school boards. One member who is a township commissioner tells me that the township's franchise agreement with its cable provider has provided funding for community access studios and three channels of cable service, one used by the township and two by the school district, as well as a full time station operator and funding for equipment purchases and repairs. Many groups use the video equipment to produce programs broadcast on these channels. It is a well-used capability and a real benefit to the community for spreading information and recording events. League candidates events are always taped and broadcast many times leading up to elections.

A League member who is a school director states that the school district has used their cable channel "to broadcast meetings on things like Steroid and Drug Use and Internet Protection for Kids. These were tapes of public meetings that had been held for parents. We know lots of parents can't always attend these meetings so we broadcast them in the hopes that more parents will be alerted to the dangers that their children may be exposed to

"Possible changes in the form of franchise agreements create several concerns:

1. Municipalities currently have leverage with providers to intervene on behalf of a resident to rectify poor service. Sections 178(a)(3) and 178(b)(5) allow a municipality to require that a franchise holder to "maintain a point-of-contact" with the municipality but do not specify what authority that contact has. Will municipalities lose the ability to mediate for their residents?

2. In Section 173, the definition of "Gross Revenues" under (1) appears to include all revenue received by the franchise for "services provided by the franchise holder" but later in (2)(v) it excludes "Revenues from the sale of cable and/or video service for resale in which the reseller is required to collect a fee similar to the franchise fee from the reseller's customer." Is that language intended to limit gross revenue to what we now know as basic cable service and exclude premium channels, which bring in the most revenue, considerably reducing the franchise fees to local governments?

3. Finally, and most important to community organizations like the League, Sections 175(b)(2) and 176(b)(3) allow new franchise holders, which we take to be primarily telephone companies, to define their own "service area footprint" for which there is no requirement that municipal boundaries be considered. In fact, Section 178(b)(8) specifically says that a municipality may not require that the franchise holder offer service to areas of the municipality not included in the franchise holder's self-designated "service area footprint."

For municipalities, school districts and community groups seeking to inform an entire community this presents a significant barrier. Some school districts already have this problem on a smaller scale. The school district I mentioned above currently must deal with two cable companies, each of which serves two of the four municipalities in the district, and it had great difficulty getting an access channel from both. Imagine the problem if the service areas of cable companies and competing telephone companies have different boundaries neither of which are related to the areas of the organizations seeking to use the PEG channels.

The effectiveness of the PEG channels will be considerably diminished. Essentially the telephone companies, and perhaps eventually the cable companies, despite caveats in the bill about discrimination, are being allowed to carve up communities however they wish with no regard to the needs of the community as a whole. We urge you to make changes in the bill that will make the PEG channel service areas as compatible as possible with the areas served by those organizations that use PEG channels.
Thank you for providing this opportunity to testify.

The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. Membership is open to men and women of 18 years of age or older.