MI: A Federal Court Stops Comcast's Plan to Exile Public

Posted on January 24, 2008 - 7:59am.

from: Free Expression Policy Project

A Federal Court Stops Comcast's Plan to Exile Public
Access Channels to Cable Siberia - At Least for Now

(January 16, 2008) - The large cable companies that sell the public its
"basic tier" and premium TV services have never liked "PEG"
(public, educational, and governmental) channels. But this week in Michigan,
a federal judge stopped the biggest of the cable giants, Comcast, from
reassigning PEG channels from the basic tier to high-numbered, difficult-to-find
spaces in the digital spectrum, and requiring customers to buy new digital
converters in order to view them.

PEG channel access is often required by the franchising agreements between
municipalities and cable companies - the same agreements that give the
companies monopoly power to provide service, set rates, and decide what
programs will be available on almost all the other channels on the TV
dial. (The only other exception are a few channels that, under federal
law, must be set aside for commercial "leased access.")

The court challenge to Comcast's plan was brought by two Michigan towns,
Dearborn and Meridian. They claimed that the plan discriminated against
PEG channels in violation of federal law and the local franchising agreements,
and that it would cost PEG channels - including those used by public school
districts, community colleges, and the state university system - a large
part of their audience. In addition, although Comcast was offering subscribers
one free converter box for a year in order to ease the transition, each
TV set in the home needs its own box, and subscribers would have to pay
for all the boxes after the year was up.

In her January 14 decision, Judge Victoria Roberts of the U.S. District
Court agreed with the plaintiffs that the additional costs were discriminatory,
in probable violation of federal law, although moving the location of
PEG channels in itself probably would be permissible. Because of the likely
harm to the towns' PEG channels, she prohibited Comcast from implementing
its plan until the lawsuit is finally resolved.

Comcast's plan is part of a larger effort to eliminate or marginalize
PEG access. The company argued that recent legislation in Michigan "preempted"
the requirements of federal law by providing an alternative to local cable
franchising. But Judge Roberts pointed out that federal law necessarily
preempts state law on the same subject, and federal law requires that
PEG channels be made available to all community members "on a nondiscriminatory
basis," and "at the lowest reasonable rate."

Deborah Guthrie, the Meridian Township cable coordinator, told the Detroit
Free Press
that Comcast’s plan would cost basic subscribers $4-$5
per month per television for access boxes, and would deprive many lower-income
subscribers, especially senior citizens living on fixed incomes, of public,
educational and government-access channels.

According to Multichannel
, "Pressure had been building on Comcast’s PEG moves
for several weeks." Congressman Edward Markey scheduled a January
29 hearing on "PEG Services in the Digital TV Age." Rep. John Dingell
of Michigan commended the court’s decision to block Comcast’s plan because
it "would have forced many Michigan consumers to pay additional fees
to rent set-top boxes to receive the high-quality educational programming
they are currently guaranteed with basic cable service." Another
Michigan congressman, Bart Stupak, agreed, saying: “PEG channels serve
an essential role in local communities and I was pleased to see the court
block an effort to make these channels available only to digital cable
subscribers. As media consolidation continues to increase, PEG channels
become even more vital in providing a much needed local voice and diversity
of opinion.”

For a complete chronology of the Comcast/PEG controversy, see http://saveaccess.org/aggregator/sources/12

For legal documents in the case, see the Miller
Van Eaton
law firm website .

See also Harold Feld's commentary at on the Free

For background on PEG access and threats it faces in the current regulatory
environment, see FEPP's Fact
Sheets on Media Democracy
, Survey
on the Legal Needs of Media Reform Organizations
, and Comments
to the FCC in the Matter of Broadcast Localism

( categories: Comcast | MICHIGAN | State Franchises )