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County needs vision for public access TV

Editor's Note: The following opinion piece ran today (June 6) in the Asheville Citizen-Times. However, several paragraphs were edited out due to space limitations. Following is the full text of the original.


A March 15 ruling by the industry-friendly Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is triggering a "taking" of public wealth that will cost Asheville and Buncombe County millions of dollars in lost revenue over the next decade.

The ruling states that cable revenue derived from Internet-related services is not subject to the 5 percent franchise fee, which federal law allows local governments to charge cable companies for monopoly-use of local public right-of-ways.

Indeed, some industry analysts predict that cable companies will eventually migrate their video services (still subject to the 5 percent franchise fee) to an Internet-based platform, thereby avoiding ALL local franchise fees.

If this FCC ruling stands, cable companies will have, in effect, executed a taking of public property on a scale not seen since the privatization of the public airwaves during the early years of the Great Depression.

Ironically, if this government-sanctioned taking were directed at a private-property owner such as General Electric or General Motors, conservative attack-dogs such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly would join the pampered economists at the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute in screaming bloody-socialism-murder.

Conservatives, however, should be given the benefit of the doubt, because chances are they have yet to hear about this stealth confiscation of our common-wealth. After all, with virtually every cable company owning -- or owned by, or in a joint-venture with -- other media giants, how would the public learn about what one activist calls the "silent plunder of our common wealth"?

Thanks to the Internet and to public-interest watchdogs such as the Alliance for Community Media, the National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National Association of Counties, the word is spreading about this latest corporate scandal. Indeed, these organizations and others filed suit on May 13 asking a federal court to overturn the FCC ruling.

But we don't have to wait and hope that a federal appeals court -- or ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court -- will do the right thing and save our public right-of-ways. Fortunately, citizens of Buncombe County are in a unique position to take action now. That's because the County Commissioners are in the final stages of negotiating a new 12-year cable franchise contract with Charter Communications.

The commissioners have conducted these negotiations believing that Internet-related cable revenue -- the fastest-growing part of the cable business -- was subject to the 5 percent franchise fee. This FCC ruling, however, turns those negotiations topsy-turvy.

Fortunately, the commissioners still have time to factor this ruling into their negotiations with Charter. Unfortunately, the City of Asheville, which awarded a 12-year contract to Charter in 1998, will have to live with greatly reduced revenue until 2010, if the FCC ruling stands.

One way that Buncombe County can recoup the expected revenue losses is by negotiating increased funding for its county-government data network and for the Public-Education-Government (PEG) video operation.

This additional funding would be especially timely, as it would help realize the emerging vision of the Asheville-Buncombe New Media Center. This multimedia training and production facility will serve as a powerful engine of workforce and economic development, and fit hand-in-glove with the region's growing film and video industry.

The Information Technology Council of the Asheville-Buncombe Area Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the use of PEG funding to create this new media center, and for good reason. The Asheville-Buncombe community has all the ingredients to create a boom-economy in multimedia and film/video production.

Indeed, a cable TV cooking show featuring the local Caribbean culinary wizard, Hector Diaz, is in production now. PEG access productions which have gone on to become multimillion-dollar juggernauts include "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Austin City Limits." A well-funded PEG access facility would also be a great training-ground for our youth. Imagine the next Jody Foster or Steven Spielberg emerging from a team of local Girl or Boy Scouts working on their video-production merit badges!

Early reports from Buncombe County's cable contract negotiations suggest that Charter has successfully "low-balled" the value of the county's franchise. This is a common cable-company practice, given their superior legal, public relations, and negotiating expertise.

Cable companies have also been known to use a tactic called "astro-turfing." This occurs when the cable company creates the appearance of grassroots support for its low-ball contract-offer by paying local residents (often the relatives of current or past employees) to organize letter-writing campaigns to local media and elected officials.

These supporters typically espouse the position that any funding for PEG access will result in higher cable rates. This argument, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that rates have risen dramatically -- Charter tacked on a 10 percent increase earlier this year -- with no support for PEG access.

The issue comes down to whether or not the county commissioners have the vision to see the economic and workforce development benefits of a well-funded PEG access operation; and whether or not they are willing to refute the specious argument that PEG funding is responsible for higher cable rates.

Even in flush times, the capital for creating a job-training facility like the Asheville-Buncombe New Media Center would be difficult to raise. Yet the capital we need for this facility is right under our noses -- in the value represented by the cable monopoly's use of our public right of ways. We cannot sit by and let this local capital be confiscated by a non-local corporation without a fight. Buncombe County, not Charter Communications, is the landlord of our public right of ways.

(Wally Bowen is executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network and a member of the N.C. Rural Internet Access Authority.)

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