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PEG Backers Cry Foul Over Slamming

Public-access television supporters, such as the Alliance for Communications Democracy, are composing a formal complaint to the Federal Communications Commission over the treatment of public, educational and government channels by both incumbent and new video providers.

The complaint was prompted by a statement by FCC Media Bureau Chief Monica Desai at a recent Congressional subcommittee hearing. Desai, at the Sept. 17 meeting of the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, told legislators’ actions by some providers to place PEG channels on anything other than the basic tier might violate federal statutes. She also said the agency needed a complaint to act against alleged violations.

The subcommittee heard complaints regarding PEG channel “slamming” by incumbent operators. Operators in different areas of the country are moving PEG channels onto digital tiers but offering basic subscribers free converters (for a short time) to continue to view the channels.

Desai said at the hearing that adding burdens to viewing defeats the purpose of PEG access.

Harshest criticism was for the treatment of PEG content by AT&T’s U-verse service, which aggregates PEG content onto a single software application that must be loaded by the subscriber, who hunts through multiple menus to find local content.

Picture quality of the AT&T U-verse streams is also lower than those of commercial channels, critics noted.

AT&T was asked to testify at the hearing, but chairman Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) said the company responded it could not find someone to testify. Failure to appear is “indicative of the company’s apparent disregard of the importance of PEG to local communities,” Serrano said.

The cable industry was represented by attorney Howard Symons, who restated cable’s support of PEG and vowed that those channels will remain on the basic tier.

But critics feel “basic tier” means low-numbered analog channels.

Barbara Popovic, executive director of Chicago Access Network Television, who testified on behalf of PEG organizations, asserts that state franchising laws which have been passed over the last four years have resulted in “PEG dropping through the cracks.”

AT&T’s PEG “solution” is especially troublesome, PEG supporters noted. They cite a report commissioned from Maryland-based Columbia Telecommunications that states the technology exists to allow Internet-protocol delivery of individual PEG channels.

“The CTC report proves that the only obstacle to AT&T treating PEG access in an equivalent manner to broadcast channels is its decision not to do so,” said Julie Gray, president of the Illinois chapter of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors.

AT&T has said individual delivery of PEG channels could cost as much as $200,000 per year.

The California state Division of Ratepayer Advocates is concerned enough about the way AT&T delivers PEG to have posted a consumer alert, and an illustrative video on YouTube, warning consumers they might lose functionality in viewing PEG should they select U-verse video services.

In the video, Mike Greer of the Ratepayer Advocates office explains that the agency posted the video to warn consumers how AT&T “segregates programming” from PEG providers. The DRA is a division within the California Public Utilities Commission.

In the YouTube video (posted Sept. 12), Greer attempts to load and view coverage of a San Francisco school board meeting. His process takes 65 seconds.

The consumer alert on the agency’s Web site notes that U-verse consumers lose the ability to watch PEG content in other languages via secondary audio programming features; can’t automatically record content such as high-school football games; and can’t watch community college courses in closed caption mode, among other limitations.

Also, consumers can’t “channel-surf”: PEG viewers must “back out” of the delivery application to access commercial content.