The threat to local access

When the euphemisms start piling up, the best thing to do is to take a closer look. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy will hold a public hearing tomorrow on the Massachusetts Cable Choice and Competition Act. Well, gee, who could be against such a thing? In fact, the bill represents a massive assault on local media by the telecom giant Verizon. It’s also part of a nationwide campaign. The Web site SaveAccess.org is tracking the issue here and elsewhere.

The legislation, described in the Globe last Friday by Laura Colarusso and the subject of a Globe op-ed today by Nolan Bowie, would strip cities and towns of their right to regulate the franchising of cable television operations in their communities. Instead, all regulation would be carried out by the state. Such a change could result in less local programming — the government meetings, school plays, church services and community bulletin boards that don’t exactly compete with “American Idol,” but that form a vital part of the local media scene.

Because government-mandated funding formulas are based on the number of subscribers in a given community, larger cities such as Boston, Cambridge and Somerville have vibrant local public-affairs programming as well. Boston even has a daily newscast and a weekly political talk show, as I described in a story for CommonWealth Magazine earlier this year. State regulation wouldn’t necessarily result in the immediate demise of such funding mandates — but it would make getting rid of those mandates a whole lot easier.

So what’s going on? Traditional cable providers — now mostly bought up by Comcast — played by the old rules, winning approval on a town-by-town basis. Verizon, which seeks to offer cable television over its phone lines, wants to catch up quickly, which is why Verizon officials are complaining about the lengthy delays sometimes imposed by local officials. Comcast, at least for the moment, seeks to keep the current regulatory regime in place — after all, it already has the licenses it needs, so anything that makes life more difficult for Verizon gives it a competitive advantage.

In fact, there will be more competition and more choice for consumers in communities where Comcast and Verizon go at it head to head. The problem is that transferring the regulatory process from local communities to the state could well result in fewer mandates for cable providers to put money into local programming. It could quickly become a race to the bottom, as Comcast would rightly cry foul if Verizon were allowed to get away with making less of a commitment to localism.

The traditional cable providers are fighting just as hard as Verizon. Recently I noticed a commercial during a Red Sox game from a group called Keep It Local MA. It was a warm, gauzy appeal to keep cable television the way it is today. Its Web site looks like it was designed by Norman Rockwell. But if you do a “whois” on keepitlocalma.com, you’ll find that it’s registered to something called NECTA.

A little Googling quickly reveals that NECTA is the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, “a six state regional trade association representing substantially all private cable telecommunications companies in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont” that “has represented the interests of the cable telecommunications industry before state and federal regulatory agencies, in the Courts, the Legislatures, and before the Congress of the United States.”

So yes, all the players are looking out for their best interests. It’s just that, in this particular case, the traditional cable industry’s interests happen to line up with those of consumers.

The time will come when there will be no logical rationale for regulating television delivery — it will all be Internet-based, and the closed cable systems of today will cease to exist. For now, though, if regulators stop requiring cable companies to pay for local programming, then it will disappear.

The legislation, Senate #1975, is online here. The media-reform organization Free Press offers online resources here. The principal sponsor of the bill is state Sen. Steven Panagiotakos, D-Lowell, whose contact information is online here. The Massachusetts Muncipal Association, which opposes the bill, has a resource guide online here.

Correction: Media activist Chuck Sherwood writes to tell me that Keep It Local MA is more than an astroturf campaign: “Just to make sure you understand, even though KIL-MA is registered to NECTA, it is in fact a network of opponents to the Verizon Special Interest bill that includes, Mass Access, ACM-NE, Mass PIRG, the Mass Municipal Association and their Mayor’s Association, and behind the scenes Free Press.” So noted.

21 thoughts on “The threat to local access

  1. mike_b1

    Dan, is this really a bad thing? Won’t this mean consumers no longer underwrite at least a portion of the programming it might not want? And in turn, can’t the local media simply move their town meetings to the Web, which would probably be more convenient and cost-effective for everyone? (Imagine: instead of physically going to the town meeting, you could Webcast it, which in turn may mean greater participation.)(For the record, I don’t work in the cable or any related industry.)

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: As I try to say in the post, that’s exactly where things are going — eventually. For now, though, it’s unrealistic. I’ll bet that most of the folks who view local government on cable are elderly — exactly the people who aren’t going to watch a webcast. And, right now at least, there’s no good way to pay for the more ambitious efforts like you see in Boston except by squeezing it out of Comcast.Won’t this mean consumers no longer underwrite at least a portion of the programming it might not want?Yes. Too bad. People also pay taxes for schools they don’t use and for public-television programming they don’t want. You must be mistaking Media Nation for the Cato Institute!

  3. Steve

    I’ve been hearing lots of radio advertising on this from all sides as well.One thing I don’t get, though. You write: The time will come when there will be no logical rationale for regulating television delivery — it will all be Internet-based, and the closed cable systems of today will cease to exist. For now, though, if regulators stop requiring cable companies to pay for local programming, then it will disappear.Even if TV is internet-based, the right to provide the wire to your house will still be regulated, no? I already get internet/TV/phone in a package, all through that wire. The company providing that wire can still be compelled to provide funds for local programming, even if that programming isn’t delivered over the “TV” part of the wire, but on some website.

  4. Rick in Duxbury

    Dan,This is like the Iran/Iraq War, where we hoped they could BOTH lose. I moved last week. Setting up cable and internet service has involved over SIX HOURS on hold in the aggregate before getting through to a human being. Once I did, they tried to entice me to get rid of Verizon phone service in favor of Comcast. Can you imagine what it would be like with LESS competition?

  5. Tom

    One more thing: Verizon has NO intention of offering its TV product in most of the state. The company’s deceptive advertising implies that so-called FIOS technology is coming to every cable or dish consumer in Massachusetts — but Verizon doesn’t want to go anywhere that’s either too rural or too urban (since high installation costs can erode short-term profit margins). Most of the TV viewers who’ve seen Verizon’s pie-in-the-sky marketing will never see FIOS –particularly if Verizon gets its way in the State House.Somerville, which already has competition, has repeatedly invited Verizon to apply for a local license in the usual way, promising quick action and a warm welcome.But Verizon’s not interested, in part because, like Boston, Somerville would expect them to serve the entire community, and Verizon just wants to cherry-pick certain neighborhoods — something they’d be able to do under the state licensing scheme.Special-interest legislation written by and for a single company is something you’d expect from the pre-2006 GOP Congress, not the Massaschusetts legislature. But money talks, and Verizon is spending a ton-and-a-half.

  6. Anonymous

    OK, here’s a silly question:If Verizon wants to deliver TV content over their phone lines, and Comcast delivers it over coaxial cable, what’s the trouble? Why can’t they just offer the service and let us make the choice?

  7. parsimonious

    Why do you want local control ? Read this from Verizon’s bill, having to do with things which would be a right EXCLUDED from a municipality:”That the holder build out its cable system to areas of the municipality not included in the holder’s service area footprint designated pursuant to Section 4(B) of this chapter or comply with any other mandatory build-out provisions.”In other words: redlining.Verizon wants, even if it gets a broad state franchise, to pick and choose which “areas of the municipality” it wants to serve. Sounds like discrimination to me.Too bad if your neighborhood just doesn’t have the demographics Verizon desires. If you need proof of how they are already doing this, peruse the list of communities now served by their FIOS, and how the affluent towns predominate. Worst for me, here in “blue collar” Peabody, I pay for the drumbeat of the FIOS ads as part of my Verizon charges now, without any access to the service “not available in all areas”. Hey, Dan…tough luck for you too in neighboring Danvers…

  8. mike_b1

    Dan, there’s a big difference between underwriting schools (from which everyone benefits) and paying to televise town meetings (which mostly give geriatrics somewhere to go between bingo games). Of course, schools cost more, too.

  9. Richard

    My cable company is pushing hard to take my phone business away from Verizon, but they don’t have to get my board of selectmen to grant them permission to offer phone service in my town. That’s because telephone service is regulated at the state level. Local cable franchising is a historical anomaly, which makes little sense now that technology is merging the telephone, TV and Internet service industries. I hate my telephone and cable companies equally, but I see the logic in Verizon’s position.I find the hedging in Dan’s post interesting: “transferring the regulatory process from local communities to the state could well result in fewer mandates for cable providers to put money into local programming. It could quickly become a race to the bottom…”Isn’t it conceivable that under statewide regulation, communities could get more local programming support? Isn’t it possible that the benefits to communities would be more consistent, instead of dependent on how well a city or town’s negotiators fare when matched up against the high-powered specialists hired by the cable companies?A tough, statewide law including requirements that the service be offered to all residents could be better for consumers than the current system. I live in a small town, where volunteer selectmen and the good folks who run the cameras on Town Meeting night are no match for the likes of Comcast, Charter, or Verizon. As a citizen and consumer, I think I’d be better served by a tough state regulatory agency.

  10. Anonymous

    …in this particular case, the traditional cable industry’s interests happen to line up with those of consumers.You really believe that, Dan? Gimme a break. Ask 100 people if they’d rather have their monthly TV outlay cut by 30/40/50 percent and lose local access programming or keep paying the same rates so they could watch the annual Town Meeting from home. I guarantee that 90+ will take the lower rates. You seem naive to the fact that the local extortion rackets these towns participate in – requiring the cable providers build studios, buy equipment, conduct training, etc. – gets passed onto the end user. You think the cable company is just swallowing these costs with a smile? Why do you think they’re always nickel-and-diming their customers with regular “fee adjustments” and the like. Bottom line: the cable industry’s interests might line up with those of left-leaning media critics who fawn over the utopian idea of community access programming, but they certainly don’t line up with those of normal consumers.

  11. Anonymous

    “Bottom line: the cable industry’s interests might line up with those of left-leaning media critics who fawn over the utopian idea of community access programming, but they certainly don’t line up with those of normal consumers.”Oddly enough, the best-known cable access programs in my area are the work of the right-wing taxaphobe crowd.

  12. Anonymous

    I’ll merely point out that the cost of cable service at our house in Munich (Germany, not North Dakota) is 1/3 the cost of similar cable service here in Wellesley. And much of it is commercial-free (or with far fewer commercial interruptions). American cable providers are obviously ripping off the American market.And that’s why we have cancelled much of our US cable.–raj

  13. The Scoop

    As a reporter who has covered local cable licensing hearings, I think this bill is an awful idea. Cable companies are always trying to get away with doing less when it comes to local programming, and city councils, aldermen and selectmen are the only ones who hold their feet to the fire. You can’t count on the legislature to do the same, or to the same degree.

  14. Anonymous

    As a reporter who has covered local cable licensing hearings, shouldn’t you keep your opinions to yourself. We need honest, fair reporting — not opinions — from reporters.

  15. Brighton Boris

    Dan,I think you’re making Verizon out to be the bad guy here. Unless, if you’ve had experience with both – cable and telephone companies – as your cable TV providers I don’t really think you’re qualified to make any kind of serious comparisson here.The bottom line is that Verizon FIOS is a superior TV service to cable(Comcash, Cox,RCN) as far as service(picture quality,bandwith, etc) and value(pricing, channel selection). Verizon has no programing tiers to make you pay for extra basic service channels you want to watch. Just give you everything for the same low price. Even for the liberal elitist like yourself you’d truly appreciate CNN International, BBC World Service or DemocracyNow.org channels as well as 300 channels for just $42.99 a month. Not a bad deal.Slightly off topic, but FIOS is bringing NECN back to Rhode Island where it’s been shut out by cable monopoly :http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2007/06/03/extended_cable/Is that so wrong?Also, Red Sox in High Def on FIOS is absolutely incredible. Once you go with FIOS you will never go back to cable. Trust me. Even standard digital channels are so much better than down-compressed picture on Comcast.Yes, I never really watch the Zoning Board Meetings(sorry, I have 3 young kids to raise who generally rule our TV set anyway with the likes of Dora or Big Bird) but I do agree that they should be available for those age 75 and older to enjoy in their free time.As for some of your slightly misinformed readers who claim that Verizon FIOS is only targeting fancy suburbs, they’re correct for the most part. Then again, Framingham, Natick, Burlington or Woburn are not exactly Belmont or Lincoln, but they all do have FIOS service.

  16. Dan Kennedy

    Brighton: I’m not making a comparison — I’m talking about local programming. Period.

  17. David Moisan

    I’m the IT person for Salem Access Television. We have wanted to webcast public meetings over the net, and have been looking for streaming providers.We can’t afford it. We would have loved to stream our Halloween parade; we talked to several providers but couldn’t make the numbers work.Streaming long-form programs is a very different thing from the clips on YouTube.Take care.

  18. bicker

    It isn’t clear that FIOS TV is actually offering service in Burlington, despite being granted a license to do so. No one at Verizon so far has been willing to discuss it, though I’m working to get an answer.So perhaps they are aiming to provide service only to rich towns.

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