Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ice Storm

There’s an inch of ice in Salina Kansas right now. The power is out in some places. My son is worried that the access station he works at will be off. I told him not to worry, if the town’s power is out, nobody’s going to see that the channel is dark. That’s similar to the kind of logic Comcast is applying to PEG channels in Michigan, nobody will miss what they cannot see.

Seems Comcast informed a host of municipalities in Michigan that they would be moving all the PEG channels to the “900 range” of the digital tier by January 15, 2008, some thirteen months before the GREAT DIGITAL TRANSITION! The Michigan NATOA folks got together and wrote Comcast a letter asking pertinent questions about this scheme. Questions like “Why now?” “What about the Basic Tier?” “Who else are you doing this to?” “Who’s going to pay for re-branding these channels?”

Comcast’s own Juan Otero wrote a response that basically said “We’re doing it because we can so screw you.”[1]

But the real reason Comcast is slamming PEG into the stratosphere is in Mr. Otero’s eighth paragraph.

“...I would point out that what we are talking about today with our provision of PEG in digital is a basic service tier that is ‘analog plus’ not ‘analog only’. At this time, we will not be offering a service tier that is ‘analog only’.”

Now I’ve never heard the term “analog plus” but I am supposing it’s pretty darn good, anything with a “plus” has got to be good.

Basically what he is saying is there won’t really be any Basic Tier, at least not the kind you can pick up for $15 or $16 a month. You know the one that is required by the Telecom Act? The one that is supposed to carry the broadcast channels and PEG? The one that a lot of seniors and people like my son get because they can’t afford a big cable bill. There will be a “Digital Starter” that after a six month honeymoon promotion will cost the consumer at least $65 a month after you throw in equipment and fees. Why have a Basic Tier for $15 a month? It isn’t cost effective. I know Comcast will make grandiose claims that of course they will offer that cheaper service, every customer is valuable. But the truth is why service three homes at $15 a month when you can service only one home for $65 a month?

How will they get away with this you ask?

Look at Bright House in Florida. They slammed PEG into the digital tier, completely off the Basic service, and their rationale was that they don’t have to have a Basic Tier. They say “competition” does not make them subject to the section of the law that covers rate regulation and the definition of the Basic Tier (as you and I know it) comes under that section. Ergo, they don’t gotta do it.

The only fly in this messy ointment is that neither Comcast nor Bright House is slamming the broadcast channels or PBS in order to “free-up” bandwidth. They can’t, they have to provide dual carriage until the GREAT DIGITAL TRANSITION takes place.

Comcast says it’s offering a free digital box to all Basic Service customers for the first year following the PEG slam, but in order to get that box you will have to subscribe to that digital tier. From the letter:

“It is worth noting that besides there being no legal requirement that cable operators offer PEG programming in analog format only, none of the cable’s national competitors offer it in analog.” (Meaning at&t and Verizon).

But the question is not about offering it in “analog only” the question is about removing PEG from analog altogether. What about those analog customers out there residing on the Basic Tier, aren’t their rights being violated?

Everybody else is hanging back, Time Warner, Charter, Cox. They are watching with eager anticipation, if Comcast succeeds; expect this scenario to come to a community near you lickety-split. Comcast is boldly throwing it all on the table and watching who will or will not salute. Along with the channel shuffle, they are closing down PEG operations as fast as state law allows.

And who’s gonna stop ‘em? The only option a community has is a lawsuit. Tell that to your city council and watch them shake their heads in disgust but concede impotence to do anything. How can they? They are up against an industry that rakes in over $100 billion a year, just on video, forget revenues from phone and internet. An industry in which one company can spend over $10 million lobbying in the state of Tennessee alone, never mind what they spent in California or for that matter Michigan.

Meanwhile PEG is being frozen out. Mr. Otero generously offers that Comcast will consider “reasonable reimbursement” to offset the expenses incurred by communities for rebranding the channels. He says some have talked about needing new letterhead and business cards. I’m sure those communities just can’t wait to cash that $200 check! Good move Comcast!

[1] Paraphrased but fairly accurately paraphrased.

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