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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Public, Educational, and Governmental (PEG) Access Cable Television Channels: Issues for Congress

Charles B. Goldfarb
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

The environment for public, educational, and governmental (PEG) cable channels has been roiled by public policy and budgetary changes at the federal, state, and local levels and by technological changes in cable networks. More than 100 PEG access centers—which provide community groups and individuals free access to video production facilities and equipment, training, and programming time—have closed since 2005, and more may close when provisions in recently enacted state laws that eliminate requirements for cable companies to provide funding support take effect. Many PEG access centers, however, continue to have stable funding sources.

When awarding franchises for the use of public rights of way to offer cable television service, many local jurisdictions required the cable companies to set aside some of their channel capacity for PEG use and to provide financial support for those PEG access channels. Those channels are not mandated by federal law. But the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 amended the Communications Act to explicitly allow franchising authorities to require cable operators to set aside channel capacity for PEG use and to provide adequate facilities or financial support for those channels. These PEG provisions have been a primary vehicle for fostering in cable systems the long-standing U.S. media policy goal of localism.

Several recent developments are affecting the amount of financial support from cable providers and local governments for the PEG channels. In recent years, 21 states have enacted laws allowing cable systems to obtain statewide franchises. Some of these laws have abrogated or phased out PEG-related provisions in local franchise agreements requiring the franchisees to set aside channels, provide financial support, or provide studio facilities. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted rules that may limit the amount of PEG financial support for non-capital costs that local franchise authorities can require of cable providers. Also, some local jurisdictions that have funded PEG operations are now facing budget deficits that are leading them to reduce or eliminate their PEG funding.

Driven by technological changes, some cable operators have begun to offer PEG channels in a fashion that may reduce consumer access to, and the quality of, those channels, and may raise consumer costs to obtain PEG channels. As traditional cable providers are migrating from analog to digital transmission of programming, some subscribers must obtain set-top boxes to receive PEG programming. AT&T’s U-verse service uses a different platform for PEG channels than for commercial channels. It is more difficult for subscribers, especially the visually impaired, to access the PEG channels, and PEG programming cannot be recorded on a DVR, leading some to claim the service does not meet requirements in franchise agreements or in the Communications Act. AT&T responds that it meets all requirements and it is inappropriate to require it to deploy its network inefficiently to meet rules developed for traditional cable architecture.

One bill introduced in the 112
th Congress, the Community Access Preservation (CAP) Act (H.R. 1746), would have allowed local jurisdictions in states that pass state franchise laws to require cable companies to provide PEG support equal to the greater of the amount required under the state law, the historical support required prior to enactment of the state law, or 2% of the gross cable revenues of the cable operator. That PEG support would not have been included in the statutory cap on franchise fees of 5% of revenues. The bill would have prohibited cable operators from charging subscribers for set-top boxes needed to receive PEG channels that are migrated from analog to digital tiers. The cable industry opposed the bill, claiming it would raise costs and rates and place cable operators at a competitive disadvantage with satellite television operators.

Date of Report: January 4, 2013
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R42044
Price: $29.95

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