Rural communities push for FCC action on TV access

POSTED: 09/24/16, 10:17 PM
Television and broadband services in Humboldt County have been stifled by the lack of choices and market competition, according Access Humboldt executive director Sean McGlaughlin.

In a letter of support written to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), McGlaughlin and seven other agencies — Appalshop, Center for Rural Strategies, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Akaku Maui Community Media, California Center for Rural Policy, Institute for Local Self Reliance and The Utility Reform Network — addressed the concern of rural consumers who generally have few over-the-air broadcasters available to them in a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission.

“This issue is important for all low-income consumers, but especially helpful for rural customers who’s access to a fair and competitive market isn’t available,” McGlaughlin said, adding that in Humboldt County, there are only about two choices for satellite and cable television and that most don’t allow customers to purchase or use their own set-top boxes.

The current policy allows pay-TV services to continually raise rental fees on the devices and according to McGlaughlin, implements higher prices for equipment without any improvement in services.

“The idea of the FCC is to look into creating competition in the local market and giving more visibility to local content that remains affordable to the consumer,” McGlaughlin said.

In a statement by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the FCC will plan to give more consumer rights and choices to customers in small rural markets, like Humboldt County.

“When consumers connect to a pay-TV service they should have the same ability to choose their equipment, just as they do when signing up for phone service,” Wheeler said. “That’s not just what common sense and free-market economics tell us. That’s what the law mandates.

“But when it comes to the set-top boxes mandated by pay-TV providers, consumers essentially have no choices, and they are literally paying the price for this lack of alternatives,” he continued.

Regina Costa, Telecommunications Policy Director for The Utility Reform Network (TURN) also signed the letter sent to the FCC. She said the meeting in Washington D.C. is a split vote at 3-2, and they’re hoping the chairman’s proposal will be passed.

“We’re optimistic. This will create equity for rural customers and allow people to make their own decisions about how they receive video programs,” Costa said. “Folks in large urban areas have access to so much diverse programing while people in Humboldt don’t.”

According to Costa, the price of set-top boxes will add up and will cost people upwards hundreds of dollars throughout the year. She said this was especially difficult for people living off of fixed incomes.

In the letter to Wheeler, the eight agencies stated that for many rural consumers, a cable or satellite subscription is usually a necessity and with few over-the-air broadcasters broadband access is either nonexistent or slow and expensive.

“It’s become this big national issue,” McGlaughlin said. “People should be able to decide and prioritize what they want from their subscriptions, and also be able to navigate easily through local content as well.”

Not everyone supported the chairman’s proposal. Congressman Bob Latta (R-OH), along with Representatives Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Kurt Schrader (D-OR) and Collin Peterson (D-MN), also sent a letter to Wheeler and urged the commission to reexamine its set-top box proposal and to reconsider its implications on small and rural pay-TV providers.

Latta said in a press release that the marketplace continued to prove that this proposal is obsolete and that pro-consumer initiatives looked toward the future of technology rather than taking a backwards approach like the FCC’s proposal.

In order for these rules to go into effect, the FCC would need to approve the set-top box proposal on Thursday at an open meeting in Washington, D.C.