FCC chairman offers help regaining access to TV stations

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WESTFIELD — The head of the Federal Communications Commission pledged help Tuesday to restore lost Springfield television content to Berkshire County.

In a visit to the Westfield utility poised to bring high-speed internet service to about 20 towns, Ajit Pai said he is familiar with the problem that hit Berkshires viewers over the past two years, after cable TV companies dropped Massachusetts stations because the region is officially part of the Albany, N.Y., media market.

Pai also defended the FCC's rollback of rules on "net neutrality." And in an exclusive interview with The Eagle, he explained how he squares his commission's investment in rural broadband, including $10.3 million over a decade just awarded to towns working with Westfield Gas & Electric, with his generally conservative outlook.

On the TV station access question, Pai said viewers have reason to be disgruntled.

"I have not studied this particular petition, but I've dealt with similar issues in Colorado, New Mexico and Tennessee," Pai told The Eagle. "Obviously, the value of broadcasting is its localism. Folks want news that is in their community or in their state."

In 2017, Charter Spectrum dropped WWLP-Channel 22 from Springfield, and this year pulled the plug on an ABC affiliate from Boston, WCVB-Channel 5.

Pai — he's a Republican named to the FCC by President Barack Obama, then made its chairman by President Donald Trump in early 2017 — said Congress has a mechanism called "market modification" to address the issue.

"We're happy to work with the [Massachusetts] delegation and with the affected communities to see if we can figure out a way for them to get news and entertainment that's of interest to them," Pai said, "even if it means they have to watch Patriots games instead of Kansas City Chiefs games."

He added: "I had to plug that in, as a Chiefs fan."

On other telecommunications issues, Pai said he is comfortable with his commission's decision in December to drop a net neutrality policy, which called for all internet traffic to be treated equally. The policy lapsed in June.

The rules had been adopted in 2015, when the FCC was led by Thomas Wheeler, a Democrat. Pai, who was on the commission, has said the rules barring internet service providers from interfering with speeds discouraged businesses from investing in network upgrades that would, in themselves, hasten speeds.

"I think we've made the right decision, and now it's up to Congress to decide how to proceed," Pai said of net neutrality.

Lawmakers in California recently passed a bill that would not allow internet service providers to vary speeds of traffic on the web.

Pai said a national approach is needed, not state-by-state solutions.

"The internet inherently is an interstate activity," Pai said. "So, in our view at least, the FCC or the federal government generally sets the policy and then any states that are trying to regulate in conflict with that policy are pre-empted.

"I think the worst thing would be for us to have a patchwork quilt of 50 different states having a bite at the regulatory apple, as it creates a lot of uncertainty and distorts investment decisions," he said.

The chairman said he believes Congress should handle the issue. Lawmakers should be able to agree on ways to ensure fairness in how information flows on the internet.

"In my view, at least it would be ideal for a bipartisan group to sit down at a table and put on paper the principles of an open internet that all of us, including myself, share," Pai said.

"We don't want to see blocking of access to lawful content. We want consumers to have transparency about how their plans are being offered and administered," he said. "Those are the kinds of things I think we can all rally around."

Though the FCC's stance on net neutrality under Pai's leadership has been hotly debated, the chairman said he hears more complaints about lack of access.

That was the issue that brought him through Westfield, where he toured operations of the utility's Whip City Fiber unit and the likely impact of recently awarded dollars through the FCC's Connect America Fund.

Six Berkshire County towns will receive $2.4 million in support over 10 years under the grant program. Fifteen other towns working with the Westfield utility also are getting money.

Nationally, the FCC had $1.98 billion available for broadband improvements, favoring projects, like the local ones, embracing "future proof" technology such as fiber.

"I think we need to focus our attention on closing the digital divide," he said. "When I travel around big cities and small towns alike, the No. 1 complaint I hear about the internet is not that service providers are blocking access to content, it's that we don't have access at all, or we don't have sufficient competition."

Need for grants

Pai is considered a fiscal hawk. Why then, he was asked Tuesday, should the federal government, rather than private business, step forward to help close the digital divide?

Pai said he backs the investment of taxpayer dollars because it is targeted and can boost local economies. By holding what's known as a "reverse auction," the FCC made grant applicants compete.

"That kind of competition created a downward pressure on prices," he said. "We were insuring that taxpayers got the biggest bang for the buck."

Pai said that in his travels through rural areas, he has seen the difference that high-speed access makes, whether it's a Kansas farmer engaged in "precision agriculture" or a teacher reaching far-flung students online. The hour before, Pai had heard similar testimony from Doug McNally, the Windsor Select Board member overseeing his town's broadband effort.

"If you create a broadband network in some of these smaller towns, there's no telling what kind of economic growth, and what kind of sense of vitality can be conveyed," he said. "Our hope is that by delivering broadband, we recognize there is an upfront capital expenditure that ultimately taxpayers are paying for, but the long-term value of that broadband connection is incredible."

When asked why private business isn't up to the task, Pai conceded that it's a matter of the bottom line.

"I think the primary reason is there simply isn't the return on investment," he said.

Pai said he has seen the digital divide linger stubbornly in areas across the country where business has not been able to get the returns managers want.

"That's where we have to think creatively to extend federal subsidies in a fiscally responsible way to make that business case a little more palatable."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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