In the FCC's 'video dialtone' future
No discounts for public TV on fiber access

Originally published in Current, Aug. 24, 1992

By Steve Behrens

The Federal Communications Commission has rejected public television's request for free or reduced-cost access to the common-carrier services of the fiber-optic age, which are expected to compete with and perhaps supercede cable TV systems.

If public TV needs financial help to get on the fiber, it should get Congress or state legislatures to give subsidies, the commission said in a footnote.

The decision was buried in the voluminous text of the video dialtone order. The FCC adopted the order July 16 [1992] but didn't release its text until Aug. 14.

It disappointed the lobbying group America's Public Television Stations (APTS), which said it would petition the FCC to reconsider the point.

FCC member Ervin S. Duggan [who was appointed president of PBS in 1993] said in a dissenting opinion that the commission had ''taken a step in the wrong direction.''

''The need to ensure [free access to publicly funded television] rests, in my judgment, on the same principles that support maintaining free public access to public libraries, museums and educational institutions,'' Duggan wrote.

Commissioner James Quello also dissented from the video dialtone order, knocking the FCC's ''one-price-fits-all approach,'' which would charge the same rates to HBO as to public TV.

Quello warned that the commission ''leans in the direction of a future in which all TV is pay TV.''

''By not reserving bandwidth for noncommercial uses and not recommending some kind of financial scheme to support the services, the commission abandons the American people to a pay-per-minute society, where every time you turn the dial, the meter will be running,'' comments media reform activist Jeff Chester, co-director of the Center for Media Education.

''True equality of access''

Though this issue is a big one for noncommercial programmers, it is dwarfed by the changes foreseen in the video dialtone rules. Telephone companies and others offering the broadband service--probably using the huge capacity of fiber-optic cables--will offer their video transmission services as common carriers, just as they offer phone service today: they will charge standard rates and sell capacity to all comers.

In setting out new rules for video dialtone service, the FCC avoided getting into the kind of preferential treatment that subsidized local phone service for decades--and that APTS had proposed for public-service video programmers in the future.

The commission said it ''must seek to achieve true equality of access rather than promote any particular voice or service provider.''

''We recognize that several parties have argued that the FCC should promote services that may not be provided by the market alone or have asserted that we should protect certain services by requiring local telephone companies to set aside capacity at free or reduced rates for such uses,'' the commission said.

''Unlike other video distribution regulatory schemes, the bedrock common-carrier nature of video dialtone as adopted today will require unfettered access for all program providers, regardless of their nature, and, in this way, will directly promote the goals access rules have historically been designed to meet,'' the text continued.

''If the marketplace does not meet certain needs, it is better policy to address those needs directly,'' the text said. A footnote added: ''The commission believes that if any group, such as public television, needs funds for video dialtone access, it is preferable for Congress or state legislatures to provide such monies directly through targeted appropriations.''

Can public TV afford access?

Without such subsidies, public TV and other noncommercial programmers would have to pay whatever rates the phone companies must charge to cover their expected tremendous investment in fibering the nation.

''The threat to public television from such a model might come in several forms,'' Duggan said in his dissent. ''One, can public broadcasters afford to pay for carriage on such a system? Two, will they be included on enhanced, user-friendly gateways, or will they be relegated to mere signal transmission? Third, even if public broadcasters are included on the gateways, will they be able to afford to pay for the enhanced gateway services?''

Duggan continued: ''Will public broadcasters be forced to charge subscribers for previously free 'public' television programming? These are questions that we cannot answer today. But I fear that the commission's majority, in brushing aside these concerns, has taken a step in the wrong direction.''

APTS agreed. ''For more than 25 years, both Congress and the commission have made it abundantly clear that public television is a national treasure to be fostered and encouraged,'' said President David J. Brugger in a statement. ''Today's action by the FCC is particularly ironic since the Congress recently overwhelmingly passed legislation that stated, 'it is in the public interest for the federal government to ensure that all citizens of the United States have access to public telecommunications distribution technologies.'''

In the past, Congress has interceded for public broadcasting, authorizing the commission to give reduced common-carrier transmission rates for interconnection of stations. But the battle between the cable industry and the phone companies over video transmission is so politically hot that Congress will stay away, predicts Ted Frank, a communications attorney for KCET, Los Angeles, and other public broadcasters.

The commission's treatment of the subsidy question disappointed Frank. ''It would have been nice if the commission had acknowledged that it would revisit the issue if it turns out the cost of access to video dialtone is not affordable for public television,'' he comments.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: In 1992, the FCC rejects discount rates on ''video dialtone'' services by phone companies.

Later news: APTS begins seeking legislation; Vice President Gore challenges telecom industry to wire schools and libraries.


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