Save our ‘electronic public green space’

Why are telephone companies threatening public-access TV?

For more information, go to the Alliance for Community Media

For more information, go to the Alliance for Community Media

Ron Cooper is executive director of Access Sacramento and chair of the Alliance for Community Media, Western States Region

Local high-school, college and 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 (PEG) access channels—to allow citizens in local neighborhoods the opportunity to watch and present unique information, events and programming. Tune in and watch Access Sacramento channels 17 and 18.

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 (now AT&T) and Verizon, are all geared up and ready to provide an alternative cable service to local communities. Sounds good. Competition in video services means there will be more choices for consumers. But the catch here is that neither SBC nor Verizon wants to assume the same economic or social responsibilities that the cable operators must deliver under their franchise agreements with local governments.

The phone companies are using all their considerable influence to urgently push through congressional legislation and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations designed to bypass regulation by local governments. The new rules would let them avoid paying “rent” for the for-profit use of our publicly owned rights of way.

Local governments have a responsibility to watchdog any business with extensive and long-term impact on city infrastructure. The non-exclusive franchise process undertaken in Sacramento County and other franchise areas throughout the nation are, for the most part, simple and fair in their planning and permit process. If some communities need streamlining, why not clarify the existing local procedures rather than throw out the rules altogether? Local regulations protecting our streets and rights of way are critically important. Unregulated utility construction would invite multiple companies, continuously tearing up streets, blocking commuter traffic, stringing unknown quantities of cable to already burdened poles and reducing the useful life of our roadways and sidewalks.

The phone companies have the resources to adhere to responsible and reasonable guidelines. Let’s take the steps necessary to build these systems right the first time rather than live with “unregulated mistakes” for years to come.

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 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 green space,” 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 also require the cable operator to invest its network and services throughout its entire service area—not just in the affluent neighborhoods. In other words, our economic engine runs best when customers pick their companies, not when companies pick their customers.

This requirement, to serve all, is critically important to maintain an electronic public green space 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 all video providers ought to play by the same rules as existing cable operators. A reasonable franchise fee as “rent” for the commercial use of the publicly owned right of way ought to apply, no matter what private company is profiting, phone or cable.

The Alliance for Community Media asks that residents of every community call or write their congressional senators and representatives today. Details are at The message is simple:

• My community believes in preserving open and free electronic public spaces, such as the PEG channels provide.

• The telecommunications corporations using our rights of way to make billions of dollars in our communities should contribute to the financial support for these electronic public spaces by paying “rent” to local governments.

• We support those organizations like the Alliance for Community Media and direct them to speak for us in hearings and conversations about the new video laws.

In addition to writing our congressional representatives, 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, respect the governance process of our local communities and financially support public-access community channels—our collective electronic public green space, our “field of dreams” for the little guy.