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App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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January 16, 2008 8:37 AM

Reporting From the Trenches in the Battle Over the Future of PEG

I had the great fortune to chat with Lynn Meikle of Meridian Township, Michigan on Monday.

You may have heard of Meridian recently as last Friday they made news by filing suit against Comcast to stop plans to move PEG channels from the analog tier to the digital one, which would then force analog subscribers to pay for a digital converter box to access them.

According to Meikle, the problems started with the introduction of a new statewide video franchise bill in Michigan, which has to date been interpreted as an opportunity for Comcast to revisit its local franchise agreements and pick and choose which parts it wants to abide by and which it wants to ignore.

One example of this is Comcast’s closing of public access studios, which they were charged with operating and making available to the public per the local franchise agreement. Now Meikle says the public access channel is waning as anyone reliant on those facilities to create content can no longer use them.

But the issue at hand in this lawsuit is Comcast’s desire to push PEG channels off its analog tier and onto its digital one. For them, it’s a matter of economics. By moving PEG off analog, they’re able to open up sufficient spectrum to add 40 additional digital channels and free up additional bandwidth on their network.

Meridian, on the other hand, has made the claim in court that there are federal laws that supersede the state franchise and protect the interests of PEG by guaranteeing their access to the platforms with the widest reach at the lowest cost.

But that’s only the legal way to look at things.

From a human interest point of view, I could hear the concern creeping into Lynn’s voice as we chatted about the possibility of analog PEG channels going off the air, as they were scheduled to do on January 15th.

It wasn’t concern so much for the government channel she works with, which has already taken the initiative to start offering their channel--HOM-TV 21--online, both live and on-demand, through Granicus. (They also have their own equipment and so haven’t been affected by Comcast’s closing of the public access studios.)

Instead, she dwelled on the plight of the local high schools, who have channels that are totally reliant on the PEG system for distribution, meaning they face the prospect of simply going off the air for many people in their community.

She also didn’t seem overly excited at the prospect of having to answer angry calls from elderly constituents who, she says, are woefully unprepared for and unaware of the fact that they might lose access to PEG channels on their analog service.

In total, estimates have shown that nearly half a million people in Michigan could be affected by Comcast’s decision to remove PEG channels from the analog tier.

For now some of these concerns have been postponed as while we were chatting on Monday, Meridian was its case in front of a judge to put a hold on Comcast’s planned push to turn off analog PEG channels, which was originally scheduled for the 15th but has now been delayed.

But this issue is far from being resolved, and the potential impact of the decision in this case could reverberate across the state and the nation. If Comcast wins, others will likely follow in pulling back their support for the PEG community.

Here’s the crazy thing about all this: Lynn and her fellow PEG people aren’t against being on the digital tier. In fact, they’re eager to see how going digital will potentially improve the experience they’re able to deliver to their viewers. It may even introduce the possibility of HD. The problem isn’t going digital, it’s the timing of it all.

What PEG people can’t understand is why they have to move over to the digital tier when so many other channels get to stay analog. Why make local government meetings go digital when the Food Network can remain analog?

Of course, the simple answer is that PEG doesn’t make the cable operator any money. Then there’s the question of how much of an obligation should the cable operator be under in having to take the public good into account when managing their private network.

But here’s the thing I really don’t get: while I understand how cable operators may think it’s not fair they have to carry PEG channels when satellite doesn’t, what makes no sense to me is how these efforts to fight against PEG will help the public perception of their services. I mean, sure, moving PEG to digital frees up more room for digital channels, but is it worth the potential cost of losing subscribers to other TV offerings?

Especially in a time when satellite is pulling ahead on HD and telcos are rapidly pushing to offer a video product, it seems unwise to further tarnish their image as the greedy cable company.

On the flipside, are cable systems still the best delivery platform that reaches the most people? It seems to me like their marketshare for video is increasingly under attack, and therefore the percentage of people in a community their service is delivered to has to be on the decline.

Ultimately, the only platform that can reach everybody, regardless of the pipes running into their house, is the Internet.

And some in the PEG community are starting to realize that, like Channel 6 in St. Clair, MI, which is in the process of rebranding itself at www.yourctv.org. Not to mention Meridian’s own efforts to get online through Granicus.

By and large, this developing legal situation seems like a prime example of the growing pains associated with being stuck in between the cycles of technological innovation. If everyone were already on the digital tier, PEG would gladly give up its analog channels. And if everyone were already online, PEG channels could reach the community without having to have dedicated spectrum from the cable operator.

But at the same time, if we believe in the need for robust local community media, we cannot ignore the plight of PEG channels. If we allow franchise holders to simply stop living up to their obligations, we risk losing the voices that PEG has helped make heard.

Instead, I’d suggest we need to look at two things:

What can PEG mean in the 21st century?

How can we refocus the system to support these forward-looking goals?

And forward-looking is the key term here. Now is not the time to only be lamenting over the loss of a bygone paradigm. Nor should it be an opportunity for corporations to increase profits at the expense of local community media.

Instead we should be looking to the future to find solutions, searching for ways to shore up the fundamental goals of PEG: to provide access to the tools and skills necessary to produce content, to provide a platform for the distribution of that and related content, and to provide a way to unite people with information that’s relevant to their communities.

So let’s start that process. What can PEG 2.0 mean? How can we achieve and improve upon these fundamental goals of PEG through the use of information technology?

I know I have my ideas, which I’ll be sharing in later posts. But don’t hesitate to share your ideas by adding a comment below.

Only by working together can we find a new solution to these significant challenges, and in so doing save and improve the state of local community media in this country.


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Comments (4)

Wonderful comment. What do PEG champions like Chuck Sherwood, Charles Benson and other community media champions want to add to what should be a growing discussion?

Posted by Don Samuelson on January 16, 2008 4:53 PM

Geoff, as always, you make good points - but I wanted to press on the comment about PEG on cable v. satellite. Let's not forget that cable depends on the city to get into the rights of way and build its system.

I think offering a couple of channels to the local community is a small price to pay (even when coupled with their other obligations) for that access.

But I would be interested in making it fair - I wonder what would happen if we told a cable operator they could be treated the same as a satellite provider but they have to negotiate with every person who's property they need for poles and boxes. I think that might be fair...

Posted by Christopher Mitchell on January 18, 2008 12:36 PM

Cable TV companies could use the strengths of the local channels to differentiate themselves from satellite tv. Within a region/cluster, successful PEG channels in one service area aren't the same as a single PEG channel in another. The company should have non-specific mention of public meetings, school sports/events and local interests programming, tag it with the ever-present asterix -- whose footnote reveals "not all systems have the same local channels". Why not? They claim to compete on value.

Posted by jmchugh on January 18, 2008 4:26 PM

For those of us who live in rural communities without PEG channel access, the situation is even more critical, but hopeful.

I live in a small community in north-central Iowa, and we have a PEG channel studio in our local high school. The use of that studio is limited to singular class projects each year, to introduce students to broadcast media, to singular events from time to time by local government, and . . . well, that is the extent of access at the present time. We're representative of the general PEG climate in Iowa.

I'd love to spearhead a push to create a digital age PEG channel, relying on local involvement, and independent of Internet access. Distribution would be provided through a Meraki.net wireless mesh network. The cost would be a onetime fee of $50 for the unit, and a shared monthly payment for wholesale access payment of less than $10 per month per house. The community would then have a PEG channel and a community wireless mesh network based Broadband infrastructure it could use to leverage reasonable wholesale pricing from our regional telco monopoly, Qwest.

I put the proposal in front of our local mayor. He sent a letter back, indicating there would be no support, no championing of the project from the city, and cautioned me to not move forward on the project. I later received word from the city IT director, that Qwest told him they would not permit community wireless mesh networks in Charles City, Iowa.

I recently contacted the governor of our state, Chester Culver, with the same proposal, as applied across the state to all communities. He sent a letter cautioning me to not move forward, fearing that I would be doing something illegal.

Personally, I like the idea of establishing a wireless mesh network, and eventually hooking it into reasonable wholesale pricing for Internet access. This year, recognizing that if I purchase one $50 unit, register that node as a wireless mesh network that is then a "branded network", I can, without any additional capital, resell additional "branded networks" to the local hospital, businesses, library, organizations, city government, churches, classrooms in our schools, etc.

Has anyone done something similar? Will NSA shut it down, because it's decentralized, and noone is monitoring it such as an ISP?

Any pointers appreciated.

Posted by Tom Poe on January 30, 2008 1:44 PM

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