Cable companies that for years have raked in massive sums of money courtesy of their near-monopoly status have given a modest piece of it back in the form of franchise fees that support public access channels. For the most part, the cable giants accepted this beneficial arrangement with only token grumbling.
The Federal Communication Commission, however, has tossed a monkey wrench into the gears. By a 3-2 vote, the FCC has put limits on these franchise fees, with the commission's three Republicans voting in favor. The proposed change was offered by Chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed to the body in 2017 by President Trump.
Municipalities have been able to charge a fee of as much as 5 percent of a cable company's gross revenues on cable bills to support public access channels. The FCC will now allow the companies, including Charter/Spectrum, the dominant cable provider in Berkshire County, to deduct in-kind services and equipment from those fees. Communities and their elected and appointed representatives from around the country urged the FCC not to go down this road as it considered Mr. Pai's proposal in recent months. "I am saddened that this agency refuses to listen," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcei, a Democrat, in reaction to the vote. So are Berkshire viewers of Select Board, City Council and School Committee meetings via cable television.
According to Shawn Serre, executive director of Pittsfield Community Television (PCTV), the FCC's action violates both the spirit and the letter of the 1984 federal Cable Act which established a funding mechanism for public, educational and government or "PEG" channels among the commercial channels offered by cable providers (" FCC ruling could threaten public access channels," Clarence Fanto, Berkshire Eagle, Aug. 7). As Mr. Serre explained, this funding for valuable local programming "was, and still is, a fair trade" for the valuable rights-of-way cable companies use when running wires above or below public land.
The FCC received and evidently ignored more than 9,000 comments urging it not to adopt Mr. Pai's proposal. Among them were protests from Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, Congressman Richard Neal, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard and the entire Berkshire legislative delegation.
Mr. Pai's proposal appears to have come from Eugene, Oregon's attempt to charge Comcast with a 7 percent franchise fee. It's unfortunate that Eugene opened this Pandora's Box but one community's misguided decision to break the agreement is not an excuse to end it. The FCC commissioner may have been waiting for an opportunity he could exploit to change the ground rules.
PCTV has for years provided subscribers with a live window into the workings of the Pittsfield City Council while offering a host of governmental and educational programs, along with telecasts of community events. This fall, it will offer public debates among candidates for mayor of Pittsfield and other city offices. Public access channels from North Berkshire to South Berkshire provide similar programs. The value of these stations far exceeds the modest cost of providing them paid for by the cable giants.
The FCC's action is ripe for a lawsuit on the basis of it violating the Cable Act and ideally it will overturned. Failing that, we urge the cable companies to honor current contracts within the Berkshires and continue to pay their access fees. Considering both the always climbing cable bills paid by Berkshire subscribers and the access the companies have to Berkshire rights-of-way it is truly the least they can do.