Vermont Access Network The Vermont Public Utility Commission (formerly the Vermont Public Service Board) on Thursday refused Comcast Cable’s motion to make changes to its upcoming 11-year Certificate of Public Good (Docket 8301). Comcast claimed that the Commission lacked the authority or evidence to require the company to upgrade its interactive program guide (IPG), offer public cable drops, make line extensions, and offer institutional data networks. The Commission rejected all of Comcast’s arguments and will make no changes to its initial order issued in January 2017.
In issuing its denial of Comcast’s motion to amend, the Commission stood its ground: “Based on a review of the evidentiary record and the arguments of the parties, the Commission determined that Comcast’s renewal CPG proposal did not satisfy applicable renewal criteria and that certain modifications to Comcast’s renewal CPG proposal were necessary to satisfy such criteria. A renewal CPG containing such modifications was issued by the Commission.”
The Vermont Access Network has worked on this case (Docket 8301) for nearly two years to ensure that public, educational and government (PEG) access remains relevant for the next eleven years, the term of Comcast’s next contract with the state. Lisa Byer, head of the VAN Regulatory Committee, applauds the Commission’s decision to stick with its Order, adding:
“The rapidly changing nature of cable system technology and the emerging digital transition of cable video delivery services over the next eleven years will have effects on Vermont’s community media centers and the delivery of local content. As Comcast introduces and expands the use of new technology in Vermont for commercial objectives, there is a reasonable expectation that community needs and interests related to PEG access should also be served.”
“We are strongly encouraged that the Commission does not accept Comcast’s efforts to redline Vermonters and deprive them of basic community access provisions that are included in Comcast franchises across the country.”
A summary of the key conditions are included below.
SUMMARY OF KEY CONDITIONS - Docket 8301 Order
Issued January 2017 by the Vermont Public Utility Commission
Public, Educational and Government (PEG) Access Conditions to be included in Comcast’s 11 Year Certificate of Public Good.
PEG Outreach/ Program Guide/ Interactive Program Guide (IPG) - In a major win, the Public Utility Commission agreed that Comcast has been noncompliant on prior IPG conditions and requires the company to provide access management organizations (AMO’s) access to the IPG within one year, at Comcast’s expense. The IPG is the brain of the modern cable system. Currently, most local PEG access channels do not have access to the IPG. “It appears that Comcast did not give adequate consideration to the effects this would have on a material PEG outreach service requirement of its existing CPGs and on how such effects would be ameliorated.” (p.53 of Commission Order). The Commission ordered Comcast to spend $3 million to improve their system design so that local access channels can post programs for viewing and recording via the IPG. The Commission contends that the IPG is the “most important PEG outreach condition in increasing customer awareness of PEG.” (p.53) and “does not view the cost of such condition as unduly burdensome.” (p.54).
Capacity for Local Origination - Remote Origination Sites (ROS) or “public cable drops” are recognized as an “important service in meeting community needs and interests” (p.42) and that “the origination of live programs, such as local governmental, school and community meetings, as one of the most significant community benefits provided by PEG channels.” (p.47) The Commission agreed with VAN that Comcast has not complied with its current ROS conditions and the company has reinterpreted its obligations without Board approval. “Technology constraints that emerge from a cable operator’s provision of additional commercial services do not excuse the cable operator from meeting its obligations under its CPG nor do they allow such operator to redefine its responsibilities under the CPG.” (p.42)
The Board rejected Comcast’s re-definition of the meaning of “cable plant” and finds that the term as used in Docket 7101 and Rule 8.000 is both sufficient and precise. Comcast’s proposed definition would have limited the number of possible local origination sites. The Commission’s Order finds that “alternative technologies” used for ROS may offer appropriate solutions “to the extent that such alternative technologies are more cost-effective and do not impair the adequacy of the required service.” (p.47) The Commission adopted the Department of Public Service’s proposed condition on ROS, based on the Charter Cable CPG, as “reasonable to meet community needs and interests after taking costs of meeting such needs into consideration”.
Statewide PEG Channel / Connectivity - In its January 2017 Order, the Commission recognized the value of an INet as a means to share and transport content for “leveraging certain local PEG services for the future of PEG access in Vermont.” (Conditions 50-55). The Board stated that many unresolved issues remain to be answered, including the designation of a statewide AMO, to be decided at a future proceeding.
The Commission Order reiterated the requirements of prior INet CPG conditions (20 and 21) with some modifications. The renewed conditions (19-20) speak to Comcast’s obligation to continue to provide Internet connectivity of sufficient bandwidth to AMOs for digital file sharing (also referred to in Condition 56 --”commercial class” internet access”), support for a statewide PEG access channel, and interconnectivity between AMOs and Remote Origination sites designed to make the statewide PEG access channel operations possible.
Condition 19 requires that Comcast “provide such other appropriate support to assist in the development and operation of a statewide PEG access channel as determined through future negotiations and proceedings.” (p.40). The Order goes on to detail some of the questions to be considered at that time, including designation of the statewide AMO, the nature of the channel, its structural capabilities, structures, source of funding for construction and operation, remote origination sites and appropriate interconnection with cable systems in Vermont. Comcast is not obligated to pay for statewide PEG programming content beyond its PEG access obligations.
Institutional Networks - (INet) The Commission brought forward its current INet conditions from the prior CPG, despite opposition from Comcast, on the basis of VAN’s strong support and the absence of compelling evidence for omitting the conditions. (p.88) These conditions require Comcast to respond to an RFP for construction of a PEG INet. The costs of such a network would be delivered on commercial terms yet to be negotiated. In other words, VAN would need to fund the operations of an INet were it to be provided under contract by Comcast.
In the January 2017 Order the Commission also addressed (but Comcast did not contest):
High Definition (HD) Channels - The Commission ruled that HD is increasingly the norm but that it is “not sufficiently pervasive” to yet trigger a requirement for HD PEG (p.71) except on an individual case basis with each AMO. In these cases, “Comcast should be more willing to seriously consider requests from HD Capable AMOs under Rule 8.405.” (p.72) The Board is aware that national franchises include an HD “trigger” but that the Board lacks sufficient information to make a specific ruling on HD in this Docket. However, the Board “believes it is appropriate to provide a mechanism during the term of the renewed CPG” enabling VAN or AMOs to petition the Board for an Order requiring AMO access to HD channels in the future.
The Commission sets a placeholder for an investigation of HD channels in two years: “In addition to other matters, the Commission will consider in such a proceeding issues related to the authority of the Commission to require Comcast to provide HD channels as well as SD channels to the AMOs, applicable requirements of state and federal law, and the reasonableness of any such requirements in light of future cable related community needs and interests.” (p.72)
Source: VAN. 8.3.2017. Vermont Access Network (VAN) is a statewide network of 25 public, educational and government access management organizations (AMOs) that operate 75+ local cable channels and provide media resources and education in all corners of the state. Twenty-three of the VAN members are served by Comcast cable systems.