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Cable Caper 

Access Tucson public-access TV makes a play for expansion into unincorporated Pima County

The meeting was supposed to be an opportunity for cable customers to rant against Comcast and Cox. However, the meeting quickly turned into a public-access-TV love fest.

What brought on this adoration of Tucson's citizen media is Pima County's ongoing cable-license renewal process and negotiations with the regional cable companies for a new five-year agreement. Those who love public-access TV want Pima County to include Access Tucson and some educational channels in its offerings.

The Sept. 25 meeting--led by a five-person citizen-advisory group appointed by the Pima County Board of Supervisors--is the first in a series of public meetings meant to gather opinion on Cox and Comcast. The point of the first public hearing, the advisory group said, was to solicit consumer complaints from residents in unincorporated areas of Pima County about billing practices, signal quality and installation service.

However, the majority of the 10 people who spoke at the meeting do not live in unincorporated Pima County, but instead live within Tucson's city limits. In Tucson, some public-access TV is produced by Access Tucson, with other channels going to PEG (public, educational and governmental) efforts, such as Channel 12, Tucson's government station, and TED TV, Tucson Unified School District's education station.

The lack of folks from unincorporated Pima County could have had something to do with the county's method of getting the word out, according to Sam Behrend, executive director of Access Tucson.

Most public entities do only what they're legally required to do to announce a meeting; in this case, Pima County placed a legal advertisement in The Daily Territorial (one of the Tucson Weekly's sister publications) announcing last week's meeting. Behrend, however, put into practice what he has learned as director of Tucson's public access nonprofit: Reach out to those who love you.

When Behrend learned the county was beginning the public-hearing process regarding the cable-license negotiations, he sent out a letter to supporters asking for help to solicit the county's support of public access.

In the end, Behrend and his supporters may be disappointed: At the heart of this cable-license renegotiation isn't a feel-good battle for citizens with cameras or educational TV, but funding and the county's desire to increase the cable infrastructure in unincorporated Pima County, according to John Moffat, Pima County's director of Strategic Technology Planning.

The 1984 Cable Franchise Policy and Communications Act, crafted by Arizona's own Sen. Barry Goldwater, required cable companies to fund local-access stations. Those funds are established through municipal and county license agreements that allow cable companies to build infrastructure on county and city properties.

Legislation passed by state lawmakers last year, however, reduced city and county negotiation powers. The bill, pushed hard by Cox, prevents cities and counties from requesting more than four PEG channels and increasing the funds procured from the license agreements. Moffat said the city of Tucson continues to provide nine PEG channels, including four produced by Access Tucson, although that could change once the city of Tucson renegotiates its license agreements. Pima County, however, started with four channels and is now limited to four channels unless it chooses to pay Cox and Comcast for an additional channel.

The county's four channels are currently dedicated to Pima Community College and the UA, as well as the city of Tucson's Channel 12. The city and Pima County have an agreement that includes additional county information being put on the city channel, and the channel shows the Board of Supervisors meetings when they do not conflict with City Council meetings.

Behrend said the county needs to formalize its agreements with the cable companies regarding the public-access and PEG channels--and that if the county doesn't include Access Tucson in the agreements, the organization may have to start charging non-city residents for Access Tucson services such as workshops and programs, which are currently free to all.

Each county and city can determine how to pay for public access, either through a fee that shows up on the cable bill, or through a percentage of the license fees paid by the cable company to the city or county. Currently, Pima County makes almost $3 million from the licenses it has with Comcast and Cox. Access Tucson, formed in 1984 with the city of Tucson's blessing and support, has an annual budget of almost $1.2 million for its four channels. Some 80 percent of that budget comes from the city's agreement with Cox Cable, which levies a fee on each Cox subscriber as part of the license agreement with Tucson, Behrend said.

Moffat said the county's priority is increasing underserved areas of unincorporated Pima County, not increasing public access stations or including Access Tucson in its lineup--and the county isn't wild about the idea of increasing cable bills to pay for more public access.

"I can ask for a fifth channel, but (the cable companies) can come back and say it is going to cost (Pima County) $150,000 a year," Moffat said. "So then it comes out of our pocket."

Moffat said if the county were to pay for an additional channel, the funds would have to be taken from somewhere else: "If we were to give that up, something else would be impacted. It's just a balancing act."

Although Moffat said the county is limited in its negotiations, it remains interested in talking with Access Tucson. However, discussions with the cable companies will primarily focus on where new cable infrastructure is to be built, specifically in new developments. Moffat said the cable companies look at development density to determine if the area will receive cable service. That magic number of homes remains unclear.

"That's one area we're trying to get nailed down," Moffat said.

Counties and cities continue to have true negotiating power when it comes to service and billing issues. Federal Communications Commission rules require that counties and cities request subscriber complaints and use the information in negotiations to improve services. If consumers in unincorporated areas of Pima County have complaints, Moffat said, it isn't too late to relay those to county officials.

The Citizen Cable Renewal Committee's next meeting is Thursday, Oct. 4 (the day this paper officially hits the streets), from 1 to 3 p.m., at the Main Library board room, 101 N. Stone Ave. Moffat said the meeting isn't a public hearing, but public comment is encouraged.

The committee will schedule additional public meetings in November. Public hearings on the contracts will take place Dec. 12 and 13. Green Valley, serviced by Cox, will have its own public hearing on Dec. 13. Once the draft contracts are finalized, the next step is a vote of approval by the Board of Supervisors, probably in January 2008.

For more information on the public hearings and negotiation process, call Julie McWilliams at 243-7133.

More by Mari Herreras

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