When New York City recently renegotiated its franchise agreement with Time Warner and other cable providers, it got the usual slate of public-access channels. Stuck with the same old offerings, community-TV advocates can look across state lines with envy to tiny Vermont.
That largely rural state has just taken a near revolutionary step into the digital future. This year its Public Service Board ordered the state’s largest cable operator to set aside up to 10 percent of its broadband capacity for public, educational, and governmental television. As a result, Vermont’s community channels will eventually be able to offer interactive TV—a service not even on the horizon for public-access stations in New York.
“It was a huge surprise to us,” says Bunnie Riedel of the Alliance for Community Media. “It’s exactly what we want to see on the national level.”
Vermont’s move gave a major boost to its public-access channels, those stops on the dial where community groups—minorities, seniors, teens, churches, and colleges—can broadcast to their own people. The 5000 such channels in the country include stations like the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, which serves up programming for everyone from Harlemites to Kosovars, and ADAPT, a station run entirely by and for people with disabilities.
People like Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s Anthony Riddle would like to see New York’s stations share in the two-way capacity that will soon be enjoyed by commercial TV. “In the digital age, what is a channel?” asks Riddle. “It used to be that six megahertz equaled a channel. Now space is to be used for interactive transmissions.”
Public-access advocates say Vermont is unique because it has begun to think not in terms of channels, but of broadband. “Imagine,” says Riedel, “students taking a long-distance learning class on an educational channel. With two-way transmissions, the instructor has a large screen with 30 windows, one for each student. There’s real-time voice and video and data transmission.”
Riedel says the scenario could become real within a few years. All that’s needed is bandwidth.
Vermont’s Public Service Board got it—and a little bit more. The order calls for the state’s major cable company, Adelphia, to give the community channels Internet access, storage space on servers, and capital funding for making the transition to digital TV. Still, some issues regarding the new arrangement remain fuzzy, including how much broadband capacity will be available for viewers and broadcasters. Adelphia is appealing portions of the decision to the Vermont Supreme Court, and the National Cable Television Association is arguing that Vermont doesn’t have the authority to regulate these services.
Normally, the feds regulate telecommunications; the states, telephone service; and municipalities, cable providers. As the boundaries between cable TV, the telephone, and the Internet blur, however, their control is up for grabs. In a recent Ninth Circuit decision in Portland, Oregon, for example, the federal court ruled that cable broadband service is a “telecommunications service” and therefore subject to federal regulation.
Telecommunications lawyers say the fate of Vermont’s new arrangement—and the possibility for New York City following suit—depends on how the Federal Communications Commission defines interactive TV in the Time Warner merger with AOL. Since interactive TV is essentially the marriage of the Internet and cable television, the FCC may decide that the service should be considered cable, which would mean that municipalities could demand it. On the other hand, if the FCC classifies interactive TV as Internet service, then regulation could fall to the feds.
So, as others follow the Time Warner/AOL situation for its impact on the commercial use of the digital highway, there will be a small group of public watchdogs who will be interpreting the results for the nonprofit sector—and hoping for the same foresight from the feds as was shown by that little marching-at-the-head-of-the-parade state up north.