City of Cambridge Takes Position on Proposed Telecom Changes

City of Cambridge Takes Position on Proposed Telecom Changes

  • Posted on: 27 July 2005
  • By: sean

On May 9, 2005, the Cambridge City Council passed the following resolution, proposed by Mayor Michael Sullivan:

RESOLVED: That the City Council go on record in opposition to the proposed amendments to the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996, which would erode local control over Public Rights of Way and weaken or eliminate municipal cable franchising; and be it further

RESOLVED: That the City Clerk be and hereby is requested to forward a suitably engrossed copy of this resolution to the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation on behalf of the entire City Council.

CCTV’s Director of Operations John Donovan spoke during the public comment period preceding the vote. Following are excerpts from his comments:

You may have read in the news that Congress is going to revisit this year the laws which govern telecommunications in this country; indeed, it is under heavy pressure from all sides to do so. What you may not know, however, is that one really important battle to be waged in this debate is the role of cities in controlling their public rights-of-way.

Up until now, thanks in part to the Cable Act of 1984 and subsequent legislation, cities and towns have had explicit authorization to control the public rights -of-way, and to negotiate for community paybacks in exchange for letting cable companies use the public rights-of-way to make a buck (actually a whole lot of bucks).

But this year, in the midst of spending a lot of money to upgrade their lines to carry video, Verizon and other telecommunications service providers have made it a priority to weaken or eliminate municipal cable franchising. As the phone companies seek to provide the same services as cable companies, they want to do away with the need to deal with local regulatory authorities and requirements. Hearings are currently being held to adopt legislation limiting or abolishing cable franchises in order to aid the provision of new "Internet Protocol" (IP) video, voice and data services.

If they are successful and the City’s power to negotiate directly with Comcast and future cable providers is weakened or lost altogether, the potential impact on Cambridge is grave.

One sure outcome is that the City will have less power and discretion to manage the public rights-of-way in ways specific to and most beneficial for Cambridge. Another concern is what would happen to the community resources which were set in place and have been sustained through the locally-negotiated franchise?

Will the City lose the 5% of gross revenues, almost $1,000,000 annually, that Comcast currently provides as a condition of their local cable franchise? What will happen to the substantial capital investments and other fees that currently go into the General Fund? Where will the monies come from to support the only three entities (CCTV, City Cable 8, and the Educational Channels 95 & 98) which provide nearly all of the TV programming which is truly local—from City Council and School Committee meetings, coverage of local events and issues, programs and PSA’s for area non-profits, candidate forums, and all the rest?

Such legislation could also set a dangerous precedent: That the power of cities and towns to control their own public rights-of-way generally is weakened or lost!

CCTV’s attorney has cautioned me that nobody knows for sure what future federal or state-level regulation would mean for Cambridge. One could even conceive a scenario where there was no effect on our “bottom line.”

But, speaking for myself now, I have to tell you that related examples are downright discouraging. In 2002, the FCC ruled that internet traffic transmitted through the cable wires would no longer be called a “cable service” but an “information service” instead. As an information service, those revenues are no longer included in the 5% of gross revenues franchise fee payable to the city under the terms of the cable franchise. That single decision at a federal level cost the City of Cambridge $250,000 the first year, and more in subsequent years since this was the fastest growing segment in the cable company’s revenues.

No, I’m not looking forward to the end of municipal oversight of the public rights-of-way, nor should any citizen be.

So much for my personal editorial. Speaking again for CCTV...we strongly urge you to adopt the resolution that Mayor Sullivan is presenting, and send it promptly to our Congressional delegation in Washington, and to our representatives at the State House...letting them know in no uncertain terms that the loss of local control over public rights-of-way and loss of cable revenues will not be tolerated.

John Donovan