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MI: Bill provides for cable channel compromise

By saveaccess
Created 02/18/2008 - 2:57pm

from: Journal Group [1]

February 14, 2008
Bill provides for cable channel compromise
Scott Spielman

Legislation has been introduced that will keep Public, Educational and Government (PEG) channels available to all cable viewers—for now.

House Bills 5693 and 5667 would address a recent proposal from the Comcast Cable company to move those channels up into the 900 range—and out of easy access to hundreds of thousands of cable subscribers.

“There’s discrimination going on here,” said Mike Watza, an attorney representing the Michigan Coalition to Protect ROWs. He was hired by two municipalities to look into the proposal.

Comcast proposed the change in November and earned the prompt ire of many local officials. Individually, they couldn’t do much about it because lawmakers approved last year Public Act 480, the uniform video services local franchise act, which essentially made their local approval process a rubber stamp.

“One of the things that worries me is that we used to have some control over local franchises to help solve problems,” said Richard Reaume, Plymouth Township supervisor. “Now we don’t.”

House Bill 5693 would amend the act to dictate that cable providers must keep their government channels available to subscribers without requiring them to need additional equipment. HB 5667 would make the stipulation that it is only until February, 2009, when federal mandates require all cable to be digital, anyway.

“Both bills are excellent in concept, but they need some work before we can jump on board,” said Watza.

Fred Eaton, government affairs liaison for Comcast, said the announcement last year wasn’t handled properly. The change was designed, though, to keep the company competitive with satellite service providers, which already offer more digital programming.

“I think there were some misconceptions put forward,” he said. “This is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

The issue with moving the channel to the 900 range is that many television sets—even cable ready units—are not equipped to access those channels. Subscribers would require a digital box. It would be provided for free initially, but eventually they would have to pay an additional $4 per month, Eaton said. He said the move was an attempt to get the government channels ahead of the curve and to keep residents watching the channels.

“Every resident that switches to satellite is one less viewer for the PEG channels,” he said.

Wayne Mayor Al Haidous said he was still unhappy with the proposal.

“The bottom line is that the costs are going up,” he said. “I think it’s possible to be competitive by keeping it the way it is.”

Representatives from ATT and Wide Open West have indicated they will keep PEG access channels at lower levels.

Eaton said the issue isn’t over, though.

“We’re striving to work with the communities to try to come up with an amicable agreement,” he said.

That was good news for Watza.

“The communities and the cable companies have worked together for years and we’ve all benefited from it,” he said. “We want to get back to that.”

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