Could Durango’s municipal government channel, DGOV, be in the early process of melting away?
An order from the Federal Communications Commission issued earlier this month has officials not only in Durango but across the country worried about the long-term financial viability of their municipal cable TV stations.
Durango’s station, DGOV TV, provides live coverage of City Council meetings and other educational and local-interest programming on channels 191 and in high definition on channel 981 on Durango’s Spectrum cable system.
On Aug. 1, the FCC ruled that cable television providers can deduct the value of in-kind services provided to cities such as the value of the bandwidth used by municipal TV stations and free cable subscriptions to government buildings such as schools, libraries and fire stations against a maximum 5% franchise fee of gross revenues that cable companies must pay city governments for access to rights of way for their cable lines.
“Is the channel going to disappear because of this? Not tomorrow, not next month, but we can’t look much further beyond that. It’s a sustainability thing: Can we continue to support the channel, can we continue to provide the services we do?” said Victor Locke, Durango’s broadcast specialist with the public information office.
Besides showing City Council meetings, DGOV provides a community bulletin board with information not only from the city but also from La Plata County, Fort Lewis College and Durango School District 9-R.
In addition, DGOV provides shows of state interest from the Colorado Communications & Utility Alliance, and educational programming in English from the German public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
It also has a City Council wrapup show, “Council Connection.” The show, scheduled after City Council meetings, gives a five- to 10-minute digest of the meeting hosted by Mayor Melissa Youssef.
Joy Sims, vice president of strategic communications for the National Cable & Television Association, said cable customers will ultimately benefit with lower cost from the FCC order. The order bars municipalities from double-charging for rights-of-way access for internet lines, mobile phone networks or other telecommunication equipment once a cable company has already paid for rights of way access for its cable TV network, and that will keep costs down, she said.
Also, she said requirements that cable companies provide bandwidth and other support services for government channels for free, referred to as in-kind services, are effectively ways to expand the 5% cap on a franchise fee that cities can charge cable companies. Those practices, too, she said, ultimately hurt consumers, with higher prices and slower expansion of broadband internet by cable TV companies.
She cited comments issued by Michael Powell, NCTA president and CEO, praising the FCC order: “American consumers expect and deserve next-generation broadband networks and shouldn’t have to see that progress slowed by some localities’ attempts to evade Congress’s statutory framework and impose duplicative taxes and fees.”
In a filing by NCTA to the FCC concerning its order on franchise fees, NCTA lawyers said the order should “help rein in abusive practices and overreaching by franchising authorities, who have long ignored the 5% cap on franchise fees and clear limitations on their ability to regulate non-cable services offered over cable systems, to the ultimate detriment of consumers.”
Alan DeLollis, president of the Colorado Communications and Utility Alliance, said the FCC order has yet to become effective, but he expects the ruling to be published soon in the Federal Register, with orders typically becoming effective 30 days after publication.
DeLollis said, in effect, the FCC’s order essentially rewrites existing franchise agreements cities have with cable providers in favor of the cable operator.
Cities and municipal associations across the country, he said, are expected to challenge the FCC order in court – perhaps even seeking to delay implementation of it until after a court ruling.
“Cities, perhaps including a number of collaborative efforts, will challenge this order in the courts based on the history that these (franchise contracts between cities and cable companies) are negotiated agreements,” he said.