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Our Local "Electronic Public Greenspace" - Are Telephone Companies Threatening Public Access TV?

Our Local “Electronic Public Greenspace” –
Are Telephone Companies Threatening Public Access TV?

Ron Cooper, Exec. Dir. of Access Sacramento
& Chair of the Alliance for Community Media
(ACM), Western States Region

Local high school, college and the annual “Pig Bowl” football games don’t generate the kind of excitement from sponsors or the folks at Nielsen to get scheduled onto local commercial television stations. The same is true for education and governmental meetings, programming in languages other than English, and thousands of other topics representative of our diverse ethnic, political,
cultural, and religious communities in Sacramento County.

And that’s exactly why there are local cable public, education and government access channels (PEG) -- to allow citizens in local neighborhoods the opportunity to watch and present unique information, events and programming.

But this good progress toward video democracy may be about to change. It’s been well reported in the media recently that the two largest Bell
telephone companies, SBC and Verizon, are all geared up and ready to provide an alternative cable service to local communities. Sounds good. Competition in video services – like the recent advent of DBS satellite -- means there will be more choices for consumers. But the catch here is that neither SBC nor Verizon want to assume the same economic or social responsibilities that the cable operators have agreed to under their franchise agreements with local governments.

At the local, state and federal levels these telephone giants are letting it be known that their business models do not include paying franchise fees, rolling out services to all neighborhoods without regard to affluence or abiding by the same social obligations – like providing local PEG channels that may eat
into their profit margin. If phone companies are permitted to build as they wish, soon the franchise fees paid locally will go away costing local government millions of dollars and destroying PEG access.

The PEG channels are our “Electronic Public Greenspace” where democracy is actually demonstrated through low cost, televised, community dialogue. Cable companies share a part of their profits as “rent” and these funds create an electronic public/private partnership for greater civic participation. What a concept -- invite all residents to participate and actually enhance democracy electronically!

Local cable franchise rules not only support local media priorities in Sacramento County – like PEG access channels – but they also require the cable operator to invest its network and services throughout its entire service area –
not just in the affluent neighborhoods.

This requirement, to serve all, is critically important to maintain an Electronic Public Greenspace in our community and others. The more neighborhoods in Sacramento County that get access to broadband and cable services and
training in the use of these technologies -- the closer we get to guaranteeing that our community will not be one divided among the technology haves and have-nots.

As they try to shortcut the local franchising process, the phone companies say they are trying to provide better video choices for consumers. But at what cost? Why should the “rent” paid to local government be waived for these huge
profitable corporations?

We need to let our local, state and federal officials know that we care about these services and that future video providers ought to play by the same rules as existing cable operators. Collecting a reasonable franchise fee as “rent” for the commercial use of the publicly owned “right-of-way” should be the same, no matter what private company is profiting, phone or cable.

To help keep the public access TV channels alive, maybe we need to call upon our local
“Pig Bowl” Police and Fire football teams to throw up a Hail Mary pass and bring some attention to this important issue. Maybe then, those who want to bring competitive video services to California communities will accept
their public/private partnership responsibilities and financially support public access community channels -- our collective Electronic Public Greenspace, our “field of dreams” for the little guy.

It need not be complicated. It is the fair and right thing to do.

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For details on these issues, the legislation pending, and what you can do to support the continuation of community media locally and nationwide, go ><

Access Sacramento
4623 T Street, Suite A
Sacramento, CA. 95819
(916) 456-8600 #112