Monday, February 02, 2009

Blind to the Law

at&t keeps making these “presentations” in places they say they say they are going to build. They pull Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access managers into a room and extol the virtues of PEG on U-Verse. The infamous channel 99 ghetto for PEG channels. The PEG “solution.”

“We’ve lowered the load time to 8 seconds.”

“Your viewers will be able to watch city council meetings from other cities.”

“The quality is great! 480 x 480.”

“It only takes 4 clicks on the menu to find your channel.”

I can’t remember the last time I waited 8 seconds for anything to load. I get irritated when it takes more than 10 seconds to put the hot in my coffee. Around my house, it’s speed-racer time when a program goes to commercial, who can be the quickest to mute it or change the channel? I can barely stand to watch county council meetings in my own county, why on earth would I want to watch Anne Arundel or Baltimore County meetings? The pixels are the equivalent of a cell phone and no, I don’t want to click, click, click, click to get to the school district snow closing notices.

I’m glad somebody is finally taking some action. The Alliance for Community Media with the Alliance for Communications Democracy and a host of other organizations, filed a petition at the FCC on January 30th for a declaratory ruling that AT&T’s delivery of PEG is contrary to the Communications Act. This petition comes on the heels of a much encouraging Congressional hearing in September (that AT&T completely snubbed) and the heels of a tersely worded letter to the FCC by the representatives at the hearing, telling the FCC that changes in the cable industry should not result in PEG being treated as second-class.

The petition is asking the FCC to determine if AT&T is violating the law. What I am really waiting anxiously for is AT&T’s response, it should be juicy!

“We’re not violating the law, because in order for us to violate the law, we would have to acknowledge the law and agree with it. And we certainly are not acknowledging it or agreeing to it, so there!” That seems to be the attitude du jour in corners political and industrial.

The implications for this are farther reaching than just old Ma Bell and her particular prism of perception. The big boy cable operators have mentioned moving PEG to IPTV delivery and “video hubs” and the regionalization of PEG channels. They haven’t aggressively pursued this because as usual they are watching and waiting, if at&t can get away with it, then it’s everybody in the pool!

Throughout the petition it was the pointed out that “open” captioning is not the same as “close” captioning. Especially given that digital televisions allow one to increase the font, change the font color and change the font background. Having to squint at a rapid pace CNN type scroll is not the same. I know, at&t will claim that people who are deaf always have fabulous eyesight, so no problem.

Interestingly enough, I had a conversation with a fellow who worked at one of the more outspoken organizations for the blind. I explained how U-verse worked, the menu driven thing, and he suggested that there was possibly a Disabilities Act violation at work. Think about it, if you are blind you can punch the buttons on your remote and voila, you are at a channel. And if you are blind you cannot navigate the at&t menu driven one lane country road to PEG. You have to actually see the screen in order to choose the PEG channels. Of course, as one cable operator said to me “blind people don’t watch television.”

Well I guess that settles that, if the industry says so it must be true.

It should be good, excellent reading when at&t files their counter petition. I wonder how many lawyers they already got working on that. And I wonder, what kind of lobbying effort will they pursue to get the Communications Act changed in their favor? My advice to at&t, next time there’s a hearing on Capitol Hill and you’ve been called to testify, try to do your best to show up.

To see the petition and press release go to:

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