After attending a public comment hearing whose standing room only crowd testified from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., it’s expected that one will be exposed to quite a range of perspectives. And for many different reasons, and a lot of the same, a strong and unmistakable majority (49 to 8 public speakers, at my count) of the voices present rang together in strong opposition to Verizon’s appeal to plow into Massachusetts as cable providers without having to follow the longstanding rules that other providers had to meet upon entering towns.
The Cable Division of the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Energy met yesterday to discuss Verizon’s proposal to limit a local municipality’s ability to negotiate cable franchising agreements to a mere, and alarmingly dismissive, 90 days. In the 90 days, Verizon suggests, a town should be able to navigate the complex legal licencising process, ascertain the needs of the town, and negotiate Public Educational and Government (PEG) TV channel rights.
While Verizon representatives spoke first in a challenge to Massachusetts towns, who they claim have a “bureaucratic resistance to change,” town and city representatives, board of selectpersons members, cable advisory committee volunteers and PEG channel producers and executives from across the state followed with compelling stories to counter Verizon’s proposal.
The franchising negotiation process “is not like buying a copier for town hall,” one speaker remarked. Towns need the ability to hold cable providers accountable to their individual needs, and 90 days is insufficient time to complete all of the work necessary in recognizing what is fair to request of a massive corporation who will be using public rights of way for their own profit.
Towns such as Canton, Lexington and Westboro spoke of their current negotiations with Verizon, all far more than 90 days in. They told horror stories about Verizon’s reluctance to have open communication, the inflexibility they face from Verizon in negotiations, and Verizon’s habit of straying from the honored and recognized definitions of technical terms and language. The time it is taking to reach agreement, the towns argue, has been exaggerated due to Verizon’s lack of effort, not theirs.
Other towns, such as Northampton and Peabody, spoke to the strong desire to have Verizon enter into their towns as cable service providers. Verizon, however, hasn’t moved forward in consideration of the towns.
Cambridge Community Television and The Lowell Telecommunications Corporation, among others, gave forceful testimony from a PEG channel perspective. Were it not for the town’s ability to properly negotiate for station rights, the diverse and local programming that can be found on the channels – and nowhere else on television – would not be possible. In Massachusetts, PEG channels are vibrant and valued in their communities; many at the hearing noted that their success is in great part to the strong provisions that have been put into the town’s cable franchising agreement, and to the state’s policy that provides them the opportunity to fight for their needs. As the corporate media continues to chase profitable programming at the expense of invested and important information, the voices heard on local outlets must be supported and strengthened, not stifled.
Support for Verizon didn’t come cheap at the hearing; nor can it even be taken at face value. It’s no surprise that those speaking on behalf of Verizon’s proposed rule change have histories working for, or have been financially sponsored by, Verizon. Washington D.C.’s American Consumers Institute, a group made in part of telecommunication industry consultants who bill themselves as an independent consumer organization, showed up to suggest that the “pet projects” for which towns negotiate were unmerited or undeserved. Meanwhile, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) allowed for money to mire their long-term interests that align with an ability to negotiate for adequate resources for their constituencies. LULAC has been sponsored by Verizon in the past and The NAACP’s current national president is a former president of Verizon’s retail division. The Metrowest Chamber of Commerce and The International Brotherhood of Electrical workers also spoke in support of the proposals on the grounds that Verizon will bring jobs to Massachusetts, but it begs the question: for every job that Verizon creates, how many are lost to other cable companies? How many would be lost to all of the other industries whose practices – theoretically left unchecked due to a muting of PEG channel ability should Verizon get its way – indiscriminately shrink work forces?
The tremendous turnout at the hearing speaks to the importance of this issue, and demonstrates that cities and towns are not willing to allow for Verizon to enter their communities without properly negotiating the agreement. The Department of Telecommunications and Energy respectfully listened to the hours of strong testimony in opposition to Verizon’s request, and now it will be the true test of their intentions as they move forward. Will they take vote in support of a giant corporation’s interest, or will they do the right thing and put the interests of the public first?
Visit the DTE’s website to read Verizon’s proposed rule and to learn more. As well, as of next week, transcriptions from the hearing will become public record and will be available at the DTE’s offices.