Cox Communications is busy revising regulations that govern cable access in Rhode Island in response to complaints from users of the service and from state regulators.
Cox has until March 11 (30 days after the public hearing) to submit changes to the rules deemed by many of Cox critics as unfriendly to public access. Complaints included restrictions on the number of people needed to produce a show, the length of a show, scheduling and content of shows and failing equipment.
“A lot of valid issues have been brought up. There appears to be room for improvement on the part of Cox and they have indicated a willingness to do that,” said Thomas Ahern, administrator of the state’s Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, the agency regulating cable in the state.
Ahern said a hearing on public access last month drew 85 people, the largest showing for a hearing within the division in years. Other issues that came up during the session included a request that Cox make available a separate cable to be used by institutions and industries, and to increase the amount of money Cox puts into public access.
The public hearing was called after public access users and local affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union complained about public access rules issued by Cox last year. However, there have been concerns expressed over Cox – which serves 92 percent of the state – for some time, stemming from an unusual agreement between the cable company and the state.
Rhode Island is one of the few states to leave the administration of public access up to the cable provider while the most common approach is for individual cities and towns to have cable committees that oversee the operation.
Rhode Island is also one of very few states that do not charge a franchise fee to the cable company, which ranges from 3-5 percent of the annual revenues the cable company earns in that community. The franchise fee is typically used to fund public access. The state is also one of the only states in the country where a cable company doesn’t have to renew its license to operate.
Ahern, who joined the state a year and a half ago, is looking closely at the agreement made between the state and the cable industry in the early 1980s. As part of that review, the state has hired a consultant to do a multi-phased study on cable in the state, with the first part being public access.
“Based on the meeting, the public access users are saying that Cox is not doing enough,” Ahern said. During the five-hour meeting it was decided that a small group of public access users along with the state would review the new rules written by Cox. The rules will then be presented at another public hearing.
Specifically, the problems which caused the greatest concern and to which Cox must respond are the following:
Lack of new equipment and staffing at public access studios.
Requirements that there be at least five people working on a public access show.
Shows being delayed 14 days before being aired.
Requirements that shows be exactly 30 minutes or 60 minutes long.
Cox spokespeople said they are open to the suggestions and look forward to working with public access users and the state in getting the issue resolved.
“I think it is going in a very positive direction. We have made a lot of headway. People are very excited about the changes, some of which we have already made,” said Mary Lou Palumbo, community programming manager at Cox.
She said her company is aware of the equipment issues raised during the meeting.
“Cox inherited a lot of the facilities and a lot of them had problems. We started upgrading the equipment,” Palumbo said. Also on the agenda is adding more personnel to monitor the program and to help in training public access users.
Ahern said the talk about cable’s obligation to the state in recent months has people in his office talking about a larger issue: money.
“Consideration will be given to requiring Cox cable to spend an amount on public access that would be equivalent if there was a franchise fee like most states,” he said.
He said Cox says it spends $1.5 million on public access, which Ahern believes is half of what Cox would pay in a community with a franchise fee.
Palumbo said Cox is not interested in paying a franchise fee.
“We are looking to upgrade equipment right now. We are not looking into any franchise fees,” she said.
Ahern said he will also be pushing Cox to provide a second cable to institutions and industries, from school systems to companies. The “B cable,” as it is referred to, was part of the agreement between the cable companies and the state, but was not observed by Cox.
Steve Carmody, who works in computer networking, said the cable can be a valuable resource to an organization.
“I think it would be a marvelous means for high-speed data communications, a tool for video conferencing and long distance learning,” said Carmody, who spoke at the public hearing last month.