Why is AT&T trying to stop you from keeping an eye on local government?

Channel 99 is the public-access ghetto

By Cosmo Garvin
Source: News Review

This article refers to Sacramento, but U-verse subscribers here in Marin face the same treatment of Marin TV channels.

Being a full-time student and underemployed journalist, Bites recently switched cable companies, hoping to save a few bucks. For many people, this process is a hassle, with hours spent waiting for the cable guy and figuring out new gear.

For Bites, it was all of that, plus a lesson in California’s Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act and the discovery that Sacramento County is right now locked in a legal battle with the telecommunications giant AT&T, trying to protect the ability of citizens to keep an eye on local government.

The story starts the usual way. The Comcast bill was too damn high, and AT&T had a deal that would cut Bites’ cable bill in half, at least for a while. Yes, it’s probably better to cut the cord completely and not do business with either company. Still, Breaking Bad, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the 12th Doctor Who, etc., seemed like a reasonable compromise at the time. And everything was fine—for about a day and a half. That’s when Bites went to set the digital video recorder to record the Sacramento City Council meeting on Metro Cable Channel 14.

Turns out, AT&T’s U-verse service doesn’t let customers record city council meetings, or school-board meetings or any of the local government programming on that channel. Same goes for programming on Access Sacramento’s (channels 17 and 18), like the public-affairs show Soapbox, or local church services or backyard wrestling or foreign-language programs that never get play on commercial TV. Same goes for the additional programming public-TV station KVIE’s second slot, channel 7.

These channels also don’t show up in the programming guide. You can’t even get to any of them by punching the channel number into the remote, as with normal channels.

“It’s not really a channel, it’s more like an app,” the customer-service rep cheerfully explained when Bites called to ask what’s up. To get local public, educational and government-access channels, you have to go to Channel 99 and work your way through a series of menus in the “app” before you find the channel you want.

According to AT&T spokesperson Alex Carey, Channel 99 provides, “a convenient location where a viewer can bring up an alphabetical list of all communities in the entire ’Designated Market Area.’”

That means with a bit of digging, you can eventually find Sacramento’s public-access channels, along with those of Davis and Vacaville and other somewhat-nearby places. Which would be sort of interesting, if it was in fact at all convenient. But it’s more like AT&T is just trying to hide these channels and/or make them irritating and dysfunctional.

So, who cares if Bites can no longer come home from school at night and catch up on the city council meeting? There’s always the Web the next day or The Sacramento Bee’s coverage. Right?

Well, hiding the PEG channels may be illegal under California’s Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006. That’s the law that AT&T spent millions lobbying to pass, in order to ease regulations and pave the way for the rollout of the U-verse system in the state.

And in 2009, the cable commission of Sacramento County, along with the cities of Los Angeles and El Segundo, sued AT&T to get the company to comply with state law.

Initially, AT&T even refused to provide closed-captioning for the PEG channels, explained Harriet Steiner, the cable commission’s lawyer. That’s why the suit was originally based in part on the Americans with Disabilities Act. There have been some concessions, but the lawsuit is still going, four years later.

Steiner said, “The county and all of the cities have invested a lot of money in those channels,” and added that citizens really ought to be able to watch their government.

Bites groused about the “PEG ghetto” on Facebook recently and drew a response from Lloyd Levine, former California assemblyman and DIVCA co-author. He said he’s proud of the bill and explained, “We worked very hard to make sure that PEG was preserved and in a way that all customers would receive and be able to view them.”

The same post prompted Ron Cooper, former executive director of Access Sacramento, to comment that he believed AT&T intended to “marginalize these channels out of existence.”

Public access and PEG channels have provided an extremely important way to engage with local government and a space for the community to produce its own programming for decades. They’ve never been as popular as the commercial stations, of course, but at least they had a shot at being seen. Once the PEG channels disappear into AT&T’s public-access ghetto, we may never see them again.