U-Verse’s Public Access “Ghetto” Raises Protests

    February 6, 2009
    WebProNews Staff

AT&T is facing backlash from supporters of PEG (public, educational, and government) channels around the country because of how the company has bundled them on its AT&T U-Verse IPTV service. But in a world that includes YouTube, is it time to cut cable (and fiber) carriers some slack on this issue?

Complaints to the FCC ask the regulatory agency to step in on behalf of PEG supporters angry not because AT&T has cut out PEG programming—which it is required to carry by law—but because the company has crammed all of them onto channel 99 and created a menu by which viewers can choose the area relevant to their public access needs.

Most of the programming on these channels seems limited to local high school events, local government meetings, announcements, and of course, local performers of various stripes. Critics argue U-Verse’s channel 99 is a public access ghetto, stripped of closed captioning and second audio programming, and none of the programming is DVR-able. What’s more, unlike other channels—where the money is made—PEG programming fans have to seek it out, rather than scanning content listings.

Historically, public access has also launched national TV careers. You can thank (or blame) PEG programming for the likes of Tom Green and Elvira.

It is arguably likely that AT&T is technically in violation of 1984’s Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act by exercising “editorial control” over public access channels.

 U-Verse's Public Access
Wayne’s World – http://www.dreamagic.com

If you remember the earliest alarms surrounding Network Neutrality, this scenario was exactly what stoked fears among advocates—an ISP like AT&T relegating content to ghettos or “dirt roads” and deciding for the end user which content comes front and center. Given behavior like this (and stated intentions by AT&T execs) those fears are valid, especially if the model is extended to the Internet.

Past legislation regarding public access was created when TV was by far the most important/prevalent medium, and was needed to ensure an outlet for those without meaningful ways to have their voices heard. Public access was citizen journalism before citizen journalism was cool.

In that respect, the spirit that protected public access channels should be extended to the Internet to prevent carriers from exerting control over content, giving citizen journalism its deserved grander scope. AT&T offering dumb pipes is a far better option for everyone than AT&T creating a new kind of cable TV.

The coming TV/Web convergence will require a new set of rules as the old world falls away, and for that reason we should carefully pick our battles. Currently, citizen journalism was never so easy to set up. Blogs, social networks, online video abound and provide a viable (not just viable, crushing) alternative to old-fashioned (nearly obsolete) cable public access models.

The argument for enforcing cable public access laws have revolved around the percentage of the population still without access to computers or to the Internet—heck, after a decade of trying, the government’s still having a hard time getting people switched over to digital TV—and the cost of computers, cameras, and other equipment citizen journalism requires.

But costs are falling rapidly. Computers aren’t any more expensive than TV these days. Digital cameras are getting cheaper too.

All that is beside the point, though. During this media transition phase, it’s more important to ensure unfettered public access to the Internet and competition in the broadband space than it is to split hairs about how a TV provider treats obsolete must-carry channels.

I say let AT&T have this one, and let’s make sure the right legislation is in place to prevent them from doing the same with the Internet.