Keep local access, control
Portland Community Media celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, but it may have a hard time making it another 2 1/2 years if proposed federal legislation becomes law.
PCM has provided equipment and training for thousands of residents in Portland to use the cable system as a means of local community communications. Cable subscribers have had opportunities to watch high school football and city parades, local basketball games and state and city government public hearings on the community channels.
PCM also supported local and state democracy by providing thousands of hours of election coverage Ñ more time, in fact, than all of the commercial broadcast network affiliates combined.
All of this could end if Congress approves the pending legislation.
The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement (or COPE) Act Ñ a bill that's supposed to encourage more competition to cable companies. The bill would permit multibillion-dollar companies like Verizon, AT&T and Qwest, the bill's major beneficiaries, to cherry-pick the lucrative neighborhoods in a community, leaving the rest behind. And, as soon as one subscriber is signed up by the phone company, the existing cable operator can adopt the national franchise and abandon local public service commitments.
While the bill would not create the competitive marketplace that its sponsors promise, it would do the following:
1. Rely on a one-size-fits-all solution for the whole country. Cities will be forced to spend your tax dollars on expensive Capitol Hill attorneys to defend their legitimate rights-of-way regulations. Local consumers will be left to call a backlogged Federal Communications Commission with complaints. (Try reaching someone at the FCC on the phone.)
2. Allow phone companies to pick the area of a city they choose to serve, abandoning the historic commitment to universal service for all residents. This may result in short-term lower rates for areas with competition, but areas without competition will get no rate relief.
3. Cut funding for public access in cities and towns that currently have more support than what is provided for in the bill. COPE would cut Portland Community Media funding by $360,000. PCM would no longer be able to afford to provide the training, equipment and other support that enables community producers to create the kind of local programming our viewers have come to expect.
4. Replace video franchises, locally negotiated to best serve community needs, with a licensing procedure that would allow virtually anyone Ñ qualified or not Ñ to come into a city and begin digging up the streets.
5. Weaken consumer and privacy protections by limiting local governments' ability to adopt and enforce strong standards and rules to protect their citizens.
6. Create a loophole that can be used to sidestep the regulations by redefining services. While it may walk and talk like a duck, the phone companies can call it a goose and walk away from this law.
If you believe in local control, in being able to watch your local government or share local views, and in keeping control of your local rights-of-way, contact the members of Oregon's congressional delegation immediately.
Tell Congress: Don't be fooled again! Stand up for our local communities and for consumers. Say 'Nope' to COPE!
Jeff Bissonnette is president of the board of directors of Portland Community Media.