Passing the buck

Under pressure from advocates of public-access TV, Buncombe County has been pushing Charter Communications to shoulder the cost of setting up a station and helping to support channels for public-access, educational and government (PEG) programming.

But the idea of Charter’s passing on those costs to customers has some PEG advocates crying foul.

“That just basically means that it would be an unrepresented tax, if you look at it that way,” says Monty Fuchs, technology director for the Buncombe County Schools. “They’re not paying for having a franchise in Buncombe. They’re just passing that cost on to the local subscribers, and I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think that’s right at all.”

Local governments sell cable companies the exclusive right to use the public right of way to distribute their services — for which the cable companies already charge healthy fees.

Wally Bowen, executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network, sees the pass-along practice — and the listing of those costs on customers’ cable bills — as a “fiction” that Charter can use as a negotiating tactic to talk down the “rent” they’re charged for using the public’s media “right of way.” In fact, he says, the cable-TV rates in communities with little or no support for PEG access are identical to those in communities with good support.

“If we gave them the public right of way for free, the rates would still be just as high,” Bowen maintains. “It’s a difficult concept for people to grasp, and that’s why it’s such a clever tactic on the part of the cable company. And it puts elected officials in a bind, because it looks like it’s putting an additional tax on subscribers — and of course, the cable company has a scapegoat for its excessive rate increases.”

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the cable industry, subscriber rates have risen by more than 40 percent, according to The Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that aims to ensure that the digital-media systems serve the public interest. According to the Center’s Web site, the FCC’s annual report on cable rates cites a 7.5 percent increase between July 2000 and July 2001 alone — more than double the 3.4 percent inflation rate.

Of course, it’s completely legal for cable companies to pass on those costs to subscribers, notes Executive Director Jeff Chester of The Center for Digital Democracy.

“They do have a right to pass it on, but I think it is — how shall I describe it — it’s a disreputable practice,” he observes.

Back in the ’70s, many cable companies offered to provide public access on their own dime, using this promise to win lucrative franchise deals, asserts Chester.

“Once they won the contracts, they began to treat PEG access as an unwanted child and withdrew their funding and support,” he says.

Buncombe County negotiator John Howell, however, notes that since Charter Communications is a relatively new company, it wouldn’t have been part of any franchise agreements created in the ’70s. And Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene also sees things differently. Federal rules allow the costs to be passed on, she notes, and itemizing those costs on bills allows customers to understand what they’re paying for.

“If I was Charter, I’m not sure it’s something I wouldn’t do,” suggests Greene.

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