Taking Action to Protect PEG Public Access Stations- Illinois Investigating AT&T

AT&T's cutting-edge television service, U-Verse, is creating frustration for community programming advocates and being investigated by both state and federal officials.  After receiving a large number of complaints, Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, launched an investigation into the U-Verse system's underminging of  access to PEG channels (i.e. Public Education and Government stations). 

Additionally, according the Chicago Tribune, the Federal Communications Commission is currently reviewing petitions from coalitions representing "thousands of towns, schools and community groups which demands a ruling declaring AT&T in violation of rules about fair treatment of public programming."   As Helen Soule of  the Alliance for Community Media, argues, "[t[he Alliance, its members and its coalition partners are simply asking that PEG channels receive the same quality standards of delivery as commercial channels."    As the digital transition approaches and cable operators move around services in order to increase space for high-definition content, faster Internet speed and Wireless Broadband services, advocates of public access channels are fighting to ensure that PEG channels will not just disappear. 

AT&T is not the only cable provider that has used the digital transition as a mechanism to "channel-slam" PEG stations.  As we highlighted last year, Comcast attempted to move Michigan PEG channels off the "basic" tier of services and stick them in "digital delivery."  This move placed the channels in the 900 range, making them unavailable to a large number of cable subscribers.   Charter Communications took similar actions in Reno, Nev., and Wisconsin last year.

The U-Verse Problem: The specific controversy with U-Verse revolves around whether or not the service violates state law and federal rules requiring service providers to give community programming equivalent treatment to broadcast channels.  While AT&T claims it is giving similar access, public access supporters make a strong case that the communications company is simply not meeting its legal duty.   Under the U-Verse system PEG programs are placed on Channel 99.   From Channel 99 individuals must find their way through on-screen menus to the town and program they want.   Programs on Channel 99 besides being hard to locate, also take a long time to load (watch this video example) and cannot be digitally recorded.

Need to Reform Video Franchising Rules: One reason that PEG stations are being channel slammed is that over the last few years 20 states have implemented state video franchising agreements where PEG stations were not clearly defined nor were the guidelines of how to treat PEG stations adequately spelled-out.  Local governments who had traditionally supported PEG stations, lost much of there ability to set rules or standards under those state franchising agreements.  For example, while many local Michigan officials wanted to protect PEG channels from Comcast's plans to move the stations out of the basic tier,  the recently enacted uniform video services local franchise act, Public Act 480, greatly diminished legislators power to stop Comcast.  In order to ensure that PEG stations continue to be available to the public states should consider returning franchise authority to a local level, or in the least, revisiting their state video franchising laws to strengthen PEG protections.