Proposed FCC rule could hit GNAT hard

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SUNDERLAND — Public access stations such as Greater Northshire Access Television (GNAT-TV) are facing an uncertain future following a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission that would change the way subscriber fees are collected to fund programming and broadcast services.

On Sept. 25, the FCC issued proposed rulemaking — Docket 05-311 — which, if adopted, could allow cable operators to reclassify certain in-kind services and subtract their monetary value from the 5 percent that cable companies are required to pay to fund public access stations. A ruling is expected early next year.

In-kind costs can include the value of the cable channels themselves as well as any other services provided. However, the FCC ruling fails to set any guidelines or limitations to the values that cable companies can assess.

That would likely leave GNAT, an independent non-profit, without about 92 percent of the funding that fuels its annual operating budget of about $434,000, station executive director Tammie Reilly said.

"The important point to note is we are not funded by Comcast. We are funded by subscribers of the cable system," Reilly said. Comcast merely collects those funds from customer bills and passes them along to the public access stations, she said.

"The concern is it's a unilateral thing [the cable companies] can do without much oversight," Reilly explained of the potential impact. "If we have no operating revenue, it would make it very difficult for us to provide services to the community and provide the access to the community that's required."

GNAT and other public access stations in Vermont are urging residents to submit comments to the FCC on the proposed rule. Comments are being accepted through Dec. 14 and the station has put together a page on its website, at https://gnat-tv.org/fcc/ where residents can file their comments.

GNAT covers local government meetings, including select boards and school boards, and provides opportunities for resident volunteers to learn how to use video equipment and produce their own shows. The station also features a news operation led by former Journal editor Andrew McKeever.

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This past year, GNAT was honored for excellence by the Alliance for Community Media as the best station in the country in its budget class. Three of its programs were also honored, including "Kids On Sports," a program hosted by students at Manchester Elementary Middle School.

According to an FCC news release, its stated objective for the proposed rule is to "reduce barriers to infrastructure investment."

In response, the Vermont Access Network, representing the state's 25 public access stations, plans to hold a summit in the next few weeks to discuss how the ruling would affect public access, and how members might respond, Reilly said.

In addition, congressional leaders are voicing opposition to the proposal. In Vermont, U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders have signed onto a letter sent by Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts to FCC chairman Ajit Pai.

Last year in federal court, Comcast sued the Vermont Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the cable industry, over the conditions imposed by the Certificate of Public Good the state issued in 2017. In the suit, Comcast claims the PUC "exceeded its authority under federal and Vermont law" by imposing "numerous conditions on Comcast's continued cable operations in the state that are arbitrary, unprecedented and will ultimately harm local cable subscribers by resulting in millions of dollars in increased cable costs."

Public access stations were born out of the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, an industry deregulation bill written by the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz.

"The intention of the 1984 Cable Act was for the cable operators to provide non-commercial local content and access to the cable system for ordinary people," Reilly said. "The fear is this could undermine the intent of that by creating an operations revenue problem."

"The big takeaway is it's a destruction of the public good for the benefit of corporate interests," Reilly said of the proposal. "It undermines localism and we feel it's important to have that local connection and access in a healthy democracy.... If that were to go away, it would impact communities more than we even realize."

Bob Audette of the Brattleboro Reformer contributed to this report.


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