Court of Appeal Supports Maine Law to Save “Digital Siberia” Public Access Channels

The United States First Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday dismissed an appeal by cable companies and upheld a Maine law requiring cable TV providers to restore public access programming to low channel numbers that are easier to find for viewers instead of exiling them to what some critics have called “Digital Siberia”.

The law, passed in 2019 and confirmed by federal judge Nancy Torresen in March 2020, also requires cable companies to extend service to low-density parts of the state, to broadcast locally produced content in the same format as it is. provided – like high definition – and provide information about public access programs on channel guides.

The Internet and Television Association, which filed the complaint, argued that the law conflicted with federal rules on cable regulation and violated the cable company’s First Amendment rights. The cable companies also argued that high definition broadcasts use up to four times the cable bandwidth of standard definition broadcasts.

The District Court, and now the First Circuit, has rejected the cable industry’s arguments.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, whose office defended the law, called community-run television stations “an invaluable resource” and said in a statement Tuesday night that the court’s ruling “goes a long way to ensure their vitality continues by protecting against marginalization by cable television operators.

State Representative Seth Berry D-Bowdoinham also applauded the move to defend “historic legislation”.

“It is high time to curb the abuses of our two big cable monopolies, and this bill was an important step in that direction,” he said in a statement on Wednesday, referring to cable operators Charter Communications, which operates under the name Spectrum, and Comcast Corp., which uses the Xfinity brand.

For decades, the Mainers have been able to find local access cable channels – typically showing government meetings, locally produced TV shows, and sports – among the less numbered stations, usually alongside the cable shows of the TV stations. local. But in 2017, some cable companies, including Spectrum in southern Maine, moved these channels to what some have dubbed “Digital Siberia” – stations in the 1300s or beyond, where channel rockers didn’t. do not often venture.

The change made “vital public, educational and government programming … nearly impossible to find and watch,” Frey said in the statement.

The move sparked legislative action in 2019, demanding that public access channels be treated like any other station. The law returned the channels to their original place in cable programming, guaranteed that they could be broadcast in high definition, and required that they be included in program guides.

In the lawsuit, the Internet and Cable Association argued that cable companies were trying to create a “neighborhood” of public access channels that would be more manageable for businesses.

Torreson’s initial ruling, which was upheld by the appeals court on Tuesday, said federal laws restrict many cable companies’ regulations to federal government authority, but also give states control over some aspects of cable TV. This includes consumer and public protection rules, education and government (PEG access), she said, which is typically addressed in local contracts for cable operations between municipalities and businesses. cable TV. And it ruled that decisions about which channels to allocate for local access programming are a matter of consumer protection, as is the obligation to broadcast programs in high definition formats if they are recorded that way.

Torresen also rejected the Cable Association’s argument that Maine law violates the cable companies’ First Amendment rights by limiting their editorial discretion over how and over which channels local access programming is transmitted. Torreson said other court rulings allow some control over cable companies’ decisions about which channels to broadcast, and she reversed the argument, saying the exercise of controls over public access programming violated rights. of the first amendment of these strings.

Maine’s Public Access Channel Act also requires cable companies to offer to provide cable service to parts of cities with a density of at least 15 homes per mile of cable, compared to some service agreements for areas with 17 to 43 homes per mile, depending on the carrier. The ruling said density rules were left to local communities and states to decide under federal cable regulations.


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