The Say-Town Lowdown – Guest Column 

Last week, local public-access producer Patsy Robles wrote on her 411 Show blog something that galvanized media-reform advocates nationwide. Titled “Is Public Access Under Fire by AT&T U-Verse?” she gave voice to the latest concerns about protecting San Antonio’s  long embattled public-access television.

The posting was in response to something she and other local producers discovered on the City Council agenda. The item, recommended by City staff for approval, would allow AT&T to conduct testing for PEG (public, education, and government) programming carriage on its U-Verse TV Service. The “Request for Council Action” was submitted by Ben Gorzell, head of San Antonio’s Finance Department.

Patsy’s blog pointed out the documents’ Alternatives: “The City could choose not to carry PEG channels on AT&T’s system. However, the City should then consider removing the requirement of its other cable providers in order to be consistent with our cable/video providers and to provide consistent cable/video services to citizens.”

“This request for action basically states that if the AT&T U-Verse test fails, that AT&T should not be required to carry the Public Access, Governmental, or Educational channels, And that the other cable companies should not be required to as well, which would kill public access,” wrote Patsy.

“Is this how AT&T is trying to get out of having to carry the public-access channels?”

My organization, the Texas Media Empowerment Project, began receiving emails from people all over the country responding to this “canary in the goldmine,” otherwise known as the national analog vs. broadband battle taking place on Capitol Hill.

Those of us in community media questioned the City’s interpretation of Texas’s statewide video-franchise law, last revised by the 79th Legislature as Senate Bill 5. SB 5 authorizes electric-power companies to provide broadband service, and allows telephone companies to compete for statewide franchise agreements. Unfortunately, the bill also removed the power of local governments to mandate that video service providers accommodate public access.

This is why for months San Antonio lost its public-access channel: but public access had its Lazarus moment last July when, with a cough, it returned on digital channel 20 after local media activists pressured the City into upholding the 1984 Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act, which requires cable providers to support locally produced community-initiated programming on local cable systems. Public access is now only available to local cable subscribers who pay an additional $14.95 digital service package fee to Time Warner.

Last Thursday the Texas MEP joined other media activists at the Council’s
public session to ask that they pause the
U-Verse decision. Like the San Antonians who love our big hometown hero AT&T, we want competition between service providers to ensure that our community has the service options they deserve. However, as media advocates we also believe that the community needs better Alternatives to safeguard that  community media access.

I do not believe that locals are against competition or testing U-Verse, but as media consumers, media makers, and local residents, we have too many unanswered questions. I believe our elected officials are doing the best they can do; however, as an activist I raise these technical questions now so that we as the City of San Antonio can strongly stake our claim in new digital territories, and at the same time preserve our communication rights.

Council held the item, which may give local residents more time to ask whether new innovations like U-verse will support San Antonio’s vision of quality programming. Hopefully, we’ll have a better chance to understand what U-Verse TV is, and what the future of our voice, video, and data services holds. 

 

DeAnne Cuellar is the director of the Texas Media Empowerment Project.


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