New bill would benefit public-access channels

A bill co-sponsored by state Sen. Martin Nesbitt would boost funding for public-access channels like Asheville’s URTV while increasing broadband and Internet access throughout the state. Funding for local public-access channels was limited last year when the state took control of local cable franchises away from local governments.

Some of those franchise fees are later returned to the local level. Currently, however, the total amount of such fees allocated for public-access channels statewide is capped at $2 million. The bill, SB 1068, would increase that amount to $7 million, with another $7 million dedicated to expanding Internet connectivity. For URTV, that would mean an additional $25,000 per year.

Nesbitt, a Buncombe County Democrat, explained that when cities and counties lost the power to negotiate franchise fees with cable companies, “it left these channels out—this would help to fix that. There’s no magic to it; it comes from the additional revenue that the fees are [generating for] the state. [Public-access] channels would get $7 million, which will mostly help the more urban areas, and an equal amount for increasing Internet connectivity will mostly help more rural areas.”

The bill has been endorsed by a variety of groups, including the North Carolina League of Municipalities and the Mountain Area Information Network. MAIN founder and Executive Director Wally Bowen maintains that the additional funding it would provide is vital to the future of URTV and similar channels across the state.

“This is huge for the future of public access, as the new laws last year eliminated local government’s authority over this,” said Bowen. “We’ve known for a number of years that the sort of revenue [public-access stations are] getting is not sustainable. This way, some of the money from the local rights of way will go back to the local community. This is important not just for URTV but for the entire state: This is a huge, growing sector, and this will give the adequate funds to develop this public space.”

URTV Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse said that while she doesn’t see the channel’s survival threatened, the money will definitely help. “Any money is better than no money—if I was told tomorrow that we were getting $25,000, I might break out a bottle of champagne,” she said with a chuckle. “We’d use that money to buy a whole lot of equipment.”

The trend toward “a lack of local control in public utilities is a long-term concern,” noted Garlinghouse. Last year, an earlier version of the bill passed the Senate 40-2. The current bill is on hold until the overall state budget is passed. Meanwhile, notes Bowen, advocates are concentrating on building support for a similar measure in the state House.

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